Purple gain: Frances Brand's house gets painted

Has The Artist Formerly Known as Prince bought a house in Charlottesville? Why else would anyone paint the traditional white cottage at 111 Washington Avenue a shocking, Easter M&M candy shade of purple?

In fact, the house belongs to Cindy Brand, who painted it as a tribute to her grandmother, local artist and activist Frances Brand. Brand, who died in 1990 at the age of 89, likely wouldn't have minded the house's new look.

After all, blending in was never high on Frances Brand's list of priorities. Brand, who was once asked on a date by Al Capone, was arrested for civil disobedience while marching in a protest organized by Martin Luther King. She served as an Army major and secretary of Charlottesville's NAACP chapter. Locally, Brand was known as the "Purple Lady" for her head-to-toe purple wardrobe. Painting the house Brand's trademark hue was the "best way to remind people of her spirit," Cindy Brand says.

Since Cindy Brand moved into the house on Washington Avenue after her grandmother's death, she has maintained it as an unofficial Frances Brand museum. Frances Brand wanted people to "experience the world through her home," which is chock-full of artifacts from her travels around the globe, says Cindy Brand.

Brand often opened her home to members of the community. Charlottesville resident Martha Dix remembers visiting Brand's house several times during the 1980s. "It was amazing. Everything she owned had a story," she says.

A gallery behind the house features the "Charlottesville Firsts," Brand's Grandma Moses-style portraits honoring the accomplishments of local residents who "broke down barriers and opened doors for those who would follow," says Cindy Brand.

Subjects include Cornelia Johnson, the city's first female African-American police officer, and Nancy O'Brien, Charlottesville's first woman mayor. Despite the collection's popularity, Brand never sold any of her paintings, wanting to "maintain the integrity of her art and avoid selling herself out," says her granddaughter.

Cindy Brand isn't ready to go through the red tape necessary to make the house an official nonprofit museum, but the house is open to visitors. Free tours of Brand's "Gallery of Firsts" can be scheduled by calling 245-8753. With such a visible tribute to the artist open in town, Charlottesville won't soon forget its "Purple Lady."