Oak Park artist
Oak Park artist Jonathan Franklin with his mural “Katie’s Wahl.” | Photo courtesy of Jonathan Franklin
An Artistic life’
Maze Branch, Oak Park Public Library, 845 S. Gunderson Ave., Oak Park
7 p.m. Aug. 9
Admission is free
Call (708) 386-4751 or visit www.oppl.org
To see samples of Franklin’s artwork visit www.jfranklinart.com
Updated: August 6, 2012 9:15AM
If you ride the Green Line train or spend time in the vicinity of the North Boulevard railroad embankment, you may be more familiar with the work of Oak Park artist Jonathan Franklin than you realize.
Franklin recently completed a new 6- by 10-foot mural on one of the embankment’s concrete panels and reworked an older mural he painted there nearly 10 years ago. During both projects, he had rewarding encounters with people who watched him at work.
One was a homeless man named Mike, who asked if he could help Franklin work on the older mural, and was rewarded when the artist entitled the three-panel piece “The Three Mikes.”
Another was a man who was in town because his daughter, Oak Park resident Katie Wahl, had been paralyzed days earlier in a diving accident. The man asked Franklin if he would consider working her name somewhere into the painting. Franklin responded by naming the piece “Katie’s Wahl.”
“I was very touched, very moved, in both cases,” said Franklin, a lifelong artist who has created in Oak Park for the past 20 years. “Especially by the opportunity to touch someone I don’t know, have never met and may never meet — and celebrate her life.”
If you would like to hear more about both stories, and the motivation that keeps Franklin creating on a daily basis, check out his presentation “Jonathan Franklin: An Artistic Life” at 7 p.m. Aug. 9 at the Oak Park library’s Maze Branch.
Franklin, 59, has been making art since early childhood, while growing up in Vietnam, Bangladesh and Indonesia, where his father worked as a civil engineer. At first, he copied the battleships and monsters that his older brother drew, before moving on to study his brother’s Mad magazine illustrations, with guidance from an Indonesian artist who befriended him in Jakarta. After graduating with an art degree from the University of Michigan, Franklin spent some time living in a kibbutz in Israel, doing field work by day and painting by night, not out of ambition but a sense of necessity.
“Marking art is not a career for me,” Franklin writes in an essay he calls “Why I Make Art.” “It is a natural extension of my identity. I use it as a connection to my own presence and place in the world.”
A visual artist whose work has included painting, collage and print-making — as well as a stint as a set designer for local theater productions — Franklin typically combines distorted figures that are at least somewhat representational with close-up abstract backgrounds that almost occupy the same plane.
He says he enjoys the dissonance that’s created by the figures that are almost, but not quite, realistic, and the tensions created when the viewer has to pull the distorted elements together. “The hands are big, the faces are large, things don’t quite line up correctly.” And he thinks of his looming backgrounds as backdrops on a very shallow stage set.
“For me, these images are very theatrical,” he said.
In “Why I Make Art,” Franklin elaborates: “Facial expressions are the thoughts, hands become voices, costumes establish the atmosphere and patterns and shapes create environments. The figures become the actors in a performance.”
And they are created in a way that almost suggests theatrical improvisation. Franklin typically works on several pieces at once, and in a non-linear fashion, sometimes returning to a painting days, weeks, months, even years and decades after beginning it.
“The way I work is very organic,” he said. “I don’t have a particular image I’m trying to arrive at. The work evolves over time. When I return to a piece, I build on what’s there. It’s like working with clues to move closer to a final desired end.”
That desired end, however, is an elusive goal he doesn’t quite understand. He may not have an end result in mind, visually, but he feels compelled to keep on trying to hit the target, to “finish the picture and finally get it just right.” Which leads Franklin to worry, sometimes, that if he ever finally does feel he’s gotten it right at last, that could be the end of his artistic striving.
“And then,” he said, “what would I do?”