When MTA employee Marvin Franklin was killed April 29 by a Queens-bound G train as he worked on the tracks at the Hoyt–Schermerhorn Street station in Brooklyn, the reverberations from the accident were felt across town—at a West Side art school. Franklin, 55, a night track worker, had been studying at the Art Students League in Manhattan for more than a decade. After getting off work at 7 a.m., he would attend morning courses every day from 9 a.m. to noon. He would then go home to his family in St. Albans, Queens, and be back at work by 11 p.m.
“Every once in a while, Marvin would be in class and say, ‘Gee, I’m so tired,’ ” recalls Harvey Dinnerstein, one of Franklin’s instructors. “Then he snapped right back and went back into his work. He had enormous positive energy.”
Another of his instructors was Irwin Greenberg, with whom he studied watercolor. Greenberg describes Franklin as “singular”—a highly gifted artist, generous student, and natural teacher who was respected by both his instructors and colleagues at the League.
“Any word from Franklin’s mouth, other students honored,” says Greenberg. It was not unusual for Franklin to notice another student struggling with a piece and promptly put down his own paintbrushes and offer help. “He would go over to the student and very simply explain how to go forward—it was wonderful. He was terrific with individual students. He was not a polished person, but he connected with people beautifully—a rare type.”
Last July, a watercolor in his “Homeless Series” won Franklin first prize at the Salmagundi Club’s exhibition, “New York City Workers.” Edwin Lynch, who conceived of and curated the exhibit, discussed Franklin’s life and work with him. Franklin grew up one of 13 children in South Jamaica, Queens. In high school he was a math whiz; he also was a musician and athlete and studied illustration at FIT. For a period, he was also homeless himself. “Art saved my life,” he told Lynch.
Ironically, it was an accident on the job that first brought Franklin to the League in 1997, said his friend, painter Sam Goodsell: He had hurt his back carrying heavy equipment and had to take medical leave from the MTA. “We were talking about the dangers of his job all the time,” Goodsell says. “He went through a lot of stuff down there. He was almost run over by a train a few times.”
This year marked Franklin’s 22nd year as a night track worker; in just three more years, he would retire.
“He had a lot of plans after the MTA,” Goodsell says. One was to teach art; according to Greenberg, there had been discussions of him possibly teaching a course at the League. He had also recently built a studio on the top level of his house and had just published an artwork in the current edition of Drawing magazine.
In his numerous sketchbooks, one could find some of his best work, say Greenberg and Dinnerstein. They are filled with images of the subway and of daily life aboveground. “I thought Marvin was exceptional because his art was so engaged with contemporary life,” Dinnerstein says. Many images are of homeless subway riders and subway dwellers; others show glimpses of Franklin’s own life. One series shows the waiting room of his wife’s physical therapy office—Franklin’s wife, Tenley, has multiple sclerosis, and he regularly missed art class on Mondays to accompany her to appointments.
Franklin, who was constantly sketching, advised his friend Goodsell to sketch more, draw more. “Since Marvin died,” says Goodsell, “I have begun to carry my sketchbook again.”
According to Pamela Singleton, chair of the board of the Salmagundi Club, the Club will establish a prize in Franklin’s name. And there have been recent discussions at the Art Students League of organizing an exhibition of Franklin’s work in the near future. “We’re going to make sure something happens,” assures Goodsell. “He’s not going to be forgotten. He’s just too damn good.”
Franklin’s funeral took place last Saturday.
Track work at Hoyt-Schermerhorn resumed the day before.