Self Portrait, by Marvin Franklin,
image from The New York Times slide show
An article in this week’s The New York Observer caught my eye, about Marvin Franklin’s first art show, at the New York Transit Museum.
Franklin was a Metropolitan Transportation Authority track worker who was killed by a train on April 29, 2007, at age 55 and after 22 years of working the night shift. He and another track worker had gone to pick up a dolly on a track with non-functioning warning lights. Apparently, the train operator saw the men but couldn’t brake in time.
According to the Observer article, for ten years Franklin
boarded the F train in Jamaica every morning, after getting off work at 7 a.m., and sketched other passengers all the way to the Art Students League on 57th Street, where he produced watercolors, oils and etchings based on his sketches.
Franklin captured the loneliness of the subway at nighttime — vacant stares, heads tilted in sleep, a mother’s lap used as a pillow for her children’s heads. Franklin’s subjects were often the homeless, who sought shelter in the station. At one time, Franklin himself had been homeless.
A few things stood out to me from this story and the other links I found about the artist:
Franklin sketched and painted what he knew. Check out the images of his work in this New York Times slideshow. It’s clear he was present each day. He captured detail and saw nuances so many of us miss or take for granted.
Franklin devoted himself to art. He practiced regularly, building structure around his job and family and carrying his sketchbook everywhere he went. He was prolific in spite of the fact that he couldn’t afford to be a full-time artist; he produced hundreds of sketches and paintings.
Franklin was compelled by something bigger than himself. According to the MTA website, Franklin said, “Art saved my life.” When he died, he was three years away from retirement. He had planned to live off his pension, teach art, and raise awareness about homelessness by exhibiting his work. His life was cut short yet his goal of putting a face to the homeless is coming to fruition. Several other exhibits of his work are planned.
Finally, the story of Marvin Franklin raised for me all the fears I have — most irrational — about subways. The fact that they’re underground, the claustrophobic sense I get just thinking about them, how I dislike standing on a raised platform waiting for the train. I can’t help but think about how easy it would be to fall off or get pushed off. I also am amazed at how common subway deaths really are.
This story brought up so much for me. It described the artist’s way of life — not just Marvin Franklin’s, but most artists and writers and the way we constantly balance making a living and producing work. It hit home that you can’t wait until everything is ready or until you’re retired or you’ve moved all the obstacles out of the way. Marvin Franklin didn’t wait. He didn’t live in fear.
If you happen to be in Brooklyn, NY this month, you can catch the exhibit of Marvin Franklin’s art; it runs until March 30.