Some artists are indefatigable sketchers. Once such example was the late, great Marvin Franklin, a working artist in every sense of the term.
Franklin worked two jobs. At night, he worked on the New York City subway system, fixing the tracks. By day, he would work on his art – drawing, painting, and attending classes at the Arts Students League. And for good measure, he volunteered two days a week at a homeless shelter, volunteered one day a week at his church helping young kids, and taught art classes to teens in the Bronx. Franklin was clearly a man of remarkable energy and significant artistic curiosity.
Franklin lived with a sketchbook in his hand. He always carried an 11x14 sketchbook, and usually used a simple ballpoint pen. Franklin thought the pen was the ideal tool to hasten his artistic development; he thought it made the artist look more closely and draw more carefully since erasure was impossible. He also thought ballpoint pens were resilient, compact, handy and ubiquitous.
I don’t know how the many impromptu models felt when Franklin sketched them, but I’m sure it helped that he was over six feet tall and weighed some 230 pounds. Franklin would fill an entire spiral sketchbook every week or two; his pen seldom left the surface of the paper.
On April 29, 2007, Franklin, then 55, was carrying a piece of equipment across the tracks at the Hoyt-Schermerhorn station in Downtown Brooklyn when he was struck and killed by a G train. He left behind a wife, three grown children, and hundreds of sketch pads, watercolors and etchings. Many of his works depicted subway riders and, often, homeless people.
Franklin came to his empathy for the homeless through direct experience: he was homeless once himself for about a year, and said that the discipline of art helped him put his life into order. Upon his passing, the New York Transit Museum curated a show of his most significant work.
Even the most cursory look would reveal the Franklin was an acute observer of humanity, and that he sketched with a remarkable fluidity and sense of detail. Though his sketchbooks were not home to finished drawings, the images he created had a vitality often missing from more academic work.
What would have happened to Franklin had he lived longer? That will be forever unknown to us; he seemed to live for his art, but did not dream of artistic fame. His ambitions (and passions) were more down-to-earth; to Franklin making great art was not more important than being a good man.
I had not the pleasure of meeting Franklin, though his legend at the Arts Students League looms large. I would’ve been delighted, I’m sure, to call him a friend.