A good artist captures his subjects. A great artist empathizes with them. He paints not just with his eye and his hand, but with his heart, his character, his whole life experience. He reaches out and embraces those he sees before him, and paints them not merely as an observer, but as a comrade, an ally, a fellow pilgrim on this crowded, chaotic earth. A great artist reassures his subjects, consoles them, and reminds them that they have dignity and purpose, that they are not invisible. The late Marvin Franklin was such an artist.
For those of us who knew him personally, it’s still painful to think that two years have passed since Marvin Franklin was tragically killed in the line of duty. A 22-year veteran of the MTA, Marvin was fatally struck on the tracks by an oncoming G Train in Brooklyn, New York, on April 29th, 2007.
I will never forget when I heard the shocking news. It was late in the evening. I was home relaxing, reading the paper, with WNYC radio on softly in the background. When the local news came on at the top of the hour, they reported that a transit worker had been killed on the job. Then announcer said the name, “Marvin Franklin”. What??? I gasped, jumped out of my chair, turned the volume up on the radio dial, and crouched down in front of it. Did I hear correctly? Did they really say “Marvin Franklin”? Could I be mistaken? Oh how I hoped I was mistaken. I grabbed the phone and immediately called Sam Goodsell, a close friend of Marvin and classmate at the Art Student’s League. In a shaky, hysterical voice, I told Sam what I had heard on the radio. But we needed confirmation. Sam said he was going to call over to Marvin’s house and then call me back. We hung up, and I waited . . . and waited . . . and waited. Ten minutes later the phone rang. I answered it, and it was Sam. “Yeah,” he said. “It is Marvin”. Then I cried into the phone. “Sam, no!!!” Sam was speechless. It was just the beginning of the shock and grief which would reverberate throughout the Art Student’s League and beyond, and rattle the hearts of the countless people who knew and loved Marvin – as a sweet friend, a devoted family man, and a gifted artist.
He drew his inspiration from the gritty streets of his native New York; the sidewalks, the parks, and, most significantly, the subways in which he toiled nightly. His subjects were everyday people, many of whom were the downtrodden, the impoverished, the homeless. As a former homeless person himself, Marvin Franklin related to their struggles and their isolation. He never judged, pitied, or exploited them. Instead, he immortalized them, and imbued their images with his own sensitivity, compassion, and engagement.
Marvin worked in different media, but his watercolors make particular impact on those who view them. This is one of Marvin’s finest pieces. He inserted Sam Goodsell in this composition as the man on the left:
Another noteworthy watercolor:
Highly proficient, Marvin mastered the difficult art of etching. He created many etchings based on the drawings and sketches of his notebooks:
Marvin studied under Irwin Greenberg, Dan Gheno, and Harvey Dinnerstein. I was privileged to pose for Marvin in Dan’s class at the Art Student League. Every morning I could always count on a big, yummy hug from Marvin and a bright smile. He was an absolute angel of a man. Down-to-earth, intelligent, warm, great fun to be around, and never even a trace of arrogance or attitude. Marvin knew better. His scars and life lessons taught him never to take things for granted. He said famously, and humbly, “Art saved my life”.
Here’s Marvin at the reception for the City Workers Show at the Salmagundi Art Club, where he earned first prize for one of his watercolors. A more deserving accolade I’ve never known:
Marvin’s funeral was a powerful experience. As I looked around at the immense crowd that converged in Queens that day, I couldn’t help but notice the incredible diversity of the attendees; transit workers, artists and artsy types, childhood friends, family, and Marvin’s fellow homeless advocates and community leaders. Such a striking cross-section of people spoke volumes about the man himself; a man with a heart so deep and a spirit so generous, he was capable of forming bonds with the most seemingly divergent groups of people. Few of us can claim to have such a vast reach.
We can take comfort in knowing that Marvin Franklin’s friends in the art community will see to it that his body of work is never, ever forgotten. His posthumous recognition will come. Rest in peace, Marvin . . .
Village Voice article on Marvin Franklin
A must-see video on “The Art of Marvin Franklin”, with commentary by Harvey Dinnerstein and Sam Goodsell.