Work of model, painter Carolyn Francis returns home to Minnesota

Lilydale is a pretty small city. It’s about a mile and a half long along the south side of the Mississippi River, across from the city of Saint Paul, running from Pine Island to the High Bridge. It’s only about 500 feet deep; it’s basically the bluff along the Mississippi. There are about 797 people that live there. 

“Lilydalians are custodians of the beautiful setting of the river and the woods, and these little lakes and we were pleased, proud, happy to be the keepers of this oasis,” the city’s mayor, John Diehl tells me. 

A while back, Diehl was surprised to hear from an art dealer by the name of Terry Wallace. For thirty years, Wallace owned a nineteenth century art gallery in East Hampton, NY. Today, he’s the director of a small art history museum in the same area, called Gardiner Mill Cottage Gallery. 

Wallace told the mayor that he would like to donate a painting to the city of Lilydale, and host a gallery exhibition in the city featuring an artist named Carolyn Francis who died in 2023. 

Carolyn Francis

Before she died, one of Francis’ last requests was to have an exhibition in Minnesota, where her fondest memories had been. During the conversation, she expressed her love for Lilydale. After she died, as Wallace went through her inventory of paintings, he discovered a large painting titled, “Summer’s Eve, Lilydale.”  

The painting captures the yellow, white and pink wildflowers popping out foreground in front of the water. Diehl tells me he thinks it’s taken from Lilydale Regional Park. You can see a hint of a lake that sits near the river. In the background, the bluffs are filled with majesty on a seemingly perfectly sunny day. 

“To me it’s a beautiful portrayal of the river in the Lilydale area,” Diehl tells me on the phone. “It’s a very natural, very beautiful setting. We were sort of surprised and very pleased. We said, ‘Yes, we’d be delighted.’” 

Wallace tells me that Francis was born in Saint Paul and grew up in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, and participated in beauty pageants growing up.  “From what I have been told, she was a runner up to the Miss Minnesota contest,” Wallace tells me, though he’s not certain. “However, whatever pageant she won she was awarded a one year Ford Modeling contract and one commercial acting job.” 

May 1975 Cosmopolitan magazine featuring Carolyn Francis.
May 1975 Cosmopolitan magazine featuring Carolyn Francis.

The prize launched a 30-year acting and modeling career. At the time she went by Carol Francis, and later changed her name to Carolyn. According to one fan blog, Francis worked in Paris in the 1970s with Elite Model Management, and worked with luminaries like photographers Marco Glaviano and Alberto Rizzo. She landed the cover of Cosmopolitan magazine in May of 1975, and had bit parts on Remington Steele and Cheers. 

Besides her good looks, Francis loved painting. She attended Santa Monica College where she obtained a degree in fine art, and attended Pratt Institute for her Masters in Fine Art. Later she’d spend time at the Woodstock School of Art where she perfected the skill of plein-air painting. 

Wallace met Francis through her ex husband, who had been an art restorer for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “I had written two books about one part of Long Island, where she was living with him,” he tells me. “And I said to her, ‘Listen, I’ll show you different places where these early artists painted in the late 19th and early 20th century,’ and we just became friends and I started to sell her work.” 

Wallace was struck by the way Francis would treat the places she portrayed with the utmost respect. “She was a very disciplined person,” Wallace says. “If it wasn’t up to her standard, she destroyed it.” 

He describes the work as light and bright. “They capture a moment,” Wallace says. “She’s interested in the atmospheric effects of what’s going on in the painting, and also the immediacy of what she sees. The colors are not ordinary color. She can paint a mountain, and it could be purple. That’s what she sees.” 

Painting by Carolyn Francis.
Painting by Carolyn Francis. Credit: Supplied

When Carolyn’s aging mom needed help, Carolyn moved back to St. Paul to care for her. She had a studio in the Tilsner Art Studios on Broadway in St. Paul. After her mom died in 2021, Carolyn moved to Florida where she passed away in 2023.  

Carolyn had a small sum of money that she bequeathed to family, Wallace tells me, but she gave him her paintings. He’s donated paintings to museums in Long Island and Florida. He proposed donating “Summer’s Eve, Lilydale” to the city of Lilydale. 

Then, Wallace says, Mayor Diehl proposed an idea. “He said, ‘Why don’t we do some kind of an exhibition here?’ And I said, that’s a great thing. I think she’d be happy about that,” Wallace says. 

“We’re honored to be the medium through which Francis wanted to express her gratitude for her fond memories of her childhood and her artistic talent and satisfaction that she got through expressing her art,” Diehl tells me. “As the City Council, we said  ‘Why not?’” The “Lilydale Art Show” featuring paintings by Carolyn Francis takes place Sunday, May 19 from noon to 4 p.m. and Monday, May 20 from noon to 6 p.m. at Nonni Italian Restaurant, 981 Sibley Memorial Highway, Lilydale. More information here.

Sheila Regan

Sheila Regan is a Twin Cities-based arts journalist. She writes MinnPost’s twice-weekly Artscape column. She can be reached at [email protected].