Paint on the Tracks

Marvin Franklin, an M.T.A. track worker, was killed by a train last April, after 22 years of working the night shift. For the last ten of those years, he had 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’s etchings and paintings of subway scenes, as well as several of his sketchbooks, are currently on display at the New York Transit Museum in downtown Brooklyn. The crowded, quietly bright watercolors, carefully detailed but giving the impression of running together, reproduce the gaudy, subterranean character of the subways; the portraits of passengers, staring or asleep, often capture the suspended expression that our faces assume when we are in public, but unknown.

Into one subway scene, the label tells us, Franklin painted his wife, Tenley Jones-Franklin; in several others, I recognized models that I had seen before at the League. The subway car makes an ideal background for portraits, and, in a way, knowing that the paintings’ subjects were not actually seen on the subway improves them. The meeting place for all the city’s classes and nations, the subway reduces anyone who enters it to part of the scene, and anything individual, anyone recognizable, stands out against it all the more dramatically.

But Franklin’s best pieces are his sketches and etchings of the homeless—whether asleep or waking, all of them are waiting, unmoving, in equal measure protected and erased by the subway’s anonymity.

On a recent weekday morning, Franklin’s show itself was in a similar position. The Transit Museum, in a decommissioned subway station at Schermerhorn Street and Boerum Place, does not usually show art, tending more toward displays on the sandhogs who dug the subway tunnels, cable cars and the legacy of Robert Moses. Downstairs, on the tracks, are a dozen historic subway cars; you can sit on a wicker bench seat and look at ads for Fairy Soap and Uneeda Biscuits. Upstairs, near half a dozen historical turnstiles, is a display of more than a hundred of the foreign coins and slugs that have been jammed into them over the years.

Across from the only oil painting in Mr. Franklin’s show was a short video, running on a loop, about the M.T.A.’s collection of money. As I looked at the painting, I learned at least five times that in a single day, the M.T.A. processes more “sheer pieces of currency” than many foreign governments.

One or two West Indian baby sitters with very small blond charges stopped to read the show’s introduction—which mentioned that Mr. Franklin had once been homeless himself, and quoted him as saying, “Art saved my life”—and then continued on. A group of elementary school children, giddy after running through the old subway cars, passed by. Inside the exhibit, one of the posterboard reproductions of Franklin’s sketches was hanging, by its corner, from the divider; I looked around carefully, but there was no one to catch me as I straightened it and pressed it back into place.


“The Art of Marvin Franklin” will be on display through March 30. The New York Transit Museum (718-694-1600) is open Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m.

Paint on the Tracks