Thursday, July 24, 2008

Day 355 - City Workers' Art Show

You may remember Marvin Franklin as the name of the 55-year old subway track worker who tragically was killed by a passing train in April 2007 while on the job. What a lot of people may not know is that Franklin was an accomplished artist. In fact, he won best of show at the Salmagundi Art Club’s first ever City Worker Art show just a year before death. Last week, the Salmagundi mounted the second exhibition of city workers’ pieces, and dedicated this year’s award in Franklin’s name.

The exhibition spaces in the Salmagundi’s 5th Avenue brownstone in Greenwich Village looked a lot like a museum gallery. There were oils and watercolors, photographs, and occasional charcoals and pastels. A smattering of sculptures were distributed among the framed pieces. There was even one quilt. Subjects ranged from still lifes of flowers or fruit to portraits. The subway also featured prominently. But unlike most art exhibitions, the artists—-every single one of them—-is a working New York City employee.

Paul Thiesing is an educator with the City's Department of Environmental Protection. He used his daily travels through the upstate watershed to inspire an exquisitely rendered watercolor of a rainbow trout being taken from a creek. Every scale is discernible in a gently shifting spectrum of pinks, greens and yellows. Paul, who took home an honorable mention for the trout, was trained as an artist in school, but most exhibiting at the show were not.

A few paces away, Gary Sloman, with the city’s housing department, proudly stood in front a candid black-and-white photo. The 60-year old picked up a camera only a few years ago. His entry was a shot through a Soho restaurant’s porthole window of a couple gazing at each other as they finish dinner looks like it could have been posed for a fashion magazine.

“This is very upscale restaurant," he said. "You’re looking down into the restaurant and it looks like a first date. The woman looking very sexy and receptive. And the man looking like the guy in charge and also picking up the tab. And it looked like a very evocative photo.”

When Marvin Franklin won the top prize at the first City Workers Art Show in 2006 for his oil paintings of homeless people in the subway, he received a year’s membership to the nearly 140 year old Salmagundi Art Club. But the subway worker didn’t really come around. He worked the overnight shift on a gang of trackworkers based in Brooklyn, would commute to the Art Students League in midtown each morning to study for several hours, and then head home to eastern Queens to be with his wife during the day before sleeping for a few hours and starting again.

Ed Lynch is the curator who put together the show to celebrate artists who balance a life of working hard serving others while remaining dedicated to their art.

“The thought behind the first show," Lynch explained, "was these are going to be uncelebrated artists. They’re going to be people who decided to do art no matter what.”

And that certainly described Marvin Franklin’s discipline.

“If you can do what he could do," Lynch continued, "which is study-—really understand what you can do, what is your honed talent—-and then step away from the studio, reach out into the world in which you live and inform your work, then you can turn around and be like Marvin Franklin, And it would be a great compliment.”

And so this year’s best of show prize was given in Franklin’s name to honor that dedication to craft. Of nearly 300 submissions by city workers from all sorts of agencies, 123 were finally considered for the prize. It went to Pico Reinoso, an art teacher himself at P.S. 189 in East New York, for a piece entitled Afternoon Sonata.

“I teach the students, the elements--I emphasize the elements of design," Reinoso said. "The concepts of lines, the concepts of shadow, the concepts of perspective.”

Reinoso’s painting incorporates all of these elements. A soulful looking young woman about to blow into a recorder while contemplating the New York City skyline, distantly out her apartment window. Behind her, sitting on the couch in the sparsely furnished room is a woman with a similar likeness, maybe 20 years older. It’s meant to be unclear, Reinoso says, whether the older woman is the girl’s mother, or if it is the young girl as she imagines herself in the future.

All of the works that made it into the competition are serious art from a technical perspective. But not all are necessarily serious pieces. One certificate of merit went to Jennifer Sabino’s painting called, simply, Spam—-a Norman Rockwellesque portrait of a smiling pig seated at a table, a can of Spam placed before her. And then there was Duck Duck Goose, a satirical and unusual oil color of five police officers in full uniform seated in a circle on a highway, of all places, while two other officers ran around the outside in the way of the children’s game. Who, one wonders, could have pulled this off?

Alexandro Berrios is a 28-year old police officer in North Brooklyn. He may have chosen a fun subject, but Duck Duck Goose took him more than four months to complete, he says. In the spirit of Marvin Franklin, Berrios works hard to manage his city job and still find time for his art.

“I’m renting a studio in Long Island City," Berrios said. "I work the midnight tour. I hop in my car and I go to Long Island City, lock myself in an 11-by-18 room, paint for 4 or 5 hours, go home and take a shower, take a rest and then go back to work.”

For some the artists, their art is a way to tie different parts of their lives together. Nathanial Ladson is a city housing inspector with a portrait in the show. “You meet interesting people, you keep it in mind, and you put it on canvas. And sometimes it gets a little hectic, and I come home and I paint. That’s my peace.”

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