Here’s a challenge for you traveling urban sketchers out there: Be brave, try drawing exquisite St. Peter’s Square in Rome! Don’t balk at the architecture though, which is so maddeningly complicated you may well break your pencil in half and reach for your camera instead. But don’t do that! Go on, fit everything you see on one sheet of paper and get the proportions right, then enliven the architecture into an ‘event’ such as hundreds of cardinals walking up the stairs to an important meeting, watched by a dense crowd of people filling the plaza. And all that in the dusky early evening, or in the rain . . . There! Amazing work.
For an artist of Franklin McMahon’s calibre, no subject was too overwhelmingly difficult to depict; in fact, he seemed to especially seek out the most complicated scenes. Layer after layer of visual information, fully detailed and highly dynamic as well, these drawings move! The complexity of his drawings is truly impressive. The masterly execution, the compositions, the graphic effects, the perspectives, the colours and atmospheres: all is perfect. Franklin McMahon, an American reportorial artist, opened my eyes to a whole new level of drawing from ‘real life.’
Sometime in the mid-1980’ies I ran into an illustrated book called ‘This Church, These Times,’ about the Roman Catholic Church since Vatican II, written by Father Francis X. Murphy. I’m not a Catholic and the subject matter wouldn’t primarily attract me to a title like this, but the drawings of the events in Rome and elsewhere in the world – the meetings of religious leaders under the guidance of subsequent Popes, from John XXIII via Paul VI to John Paul I and II that reoriented the Church in profound ways – completely captivated me. Much like Felix Topolski (see my previous post), Franklin McMahon (1921 – 2012) sought out similar contemporary events of historical importance and reported on them in drawing, depicting both what happened in the foreground and the informal goings-on backstage. It’s interesting to compare the two: both were present at numerous presidential election campaigns, Democratic conventions, United Nations sessions and Martin Luther King rallies. It makes me wonder if they knew each other since they were often drawing in the same place, and whether they glanced at the other’s work – perhaps performed a ‘cutting contest’ in drawing, to use a jazz term meaning two master soloists eddying each other on to an ever greater virtuoso performance? Unfortunately I have no way of knowing; how I would have loved to witness the two in action! McMahon, too, was on top of the news and pursued mainly progressive causes such as the Hugo Chavez United Farm Worker-strikes in California, and meetings of activist-Catholic priests in Worker and Women’s Movements in different locales.
I was enthusiastic about ‘my’ newly discovered artist and wanted to tell him how much he inspired me. So in 1988 I managed to acquire McMahon’s Chicago address from the Society of Illustrators in NYC and sent him a letter professing my admiration for his work. And, cheeky me, I also included some photos of my own, to try to tease some commentary from him about that, too. Within weeks, a fat envelope arrived in the mail, containing a very kind letter from McMahon in response, accompanied by numerous photocopies of published articles, his bio, printed cards of some drawings and personal promotional brochures of his illustrations. He sympathized with my lament about representational drawing in a world of conceptual art, the ubiquitous photography in the printed media and the dearth of demand for hand-drawn illustration, despite the fact that at that time I was already happily receiving interesting editorial commissions from the Vancouver Sun. He explained some of his ‘business’ methods and marketing strategies while running into the same problem all reportorial artists inevitably face: that of editors of magazines and newspapers who cannot see the use of visual reporting beyond photography. Like free-lance writers, he’d self-initiate a project that interested him (‘I’m doing Politics again this year’ – meaning Iowa, New Hampshire, Super Tuesday; Jesse Jackson, Paul Simon & Michael Dukakis primaries) and query certain printed media, alongside creating a more regular income with commissions for books, ads and annual reports, for instance. He did very well in both streams as it turned out: his work was published in Harpers, Fortune, The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, Life and Sports Illustrated, and utilized by The Continental Bank, the American Bar Association, McDonalds and Price Waterhouse among many more, which put him squarely in the ranks of the aristocracy of published artists. Not only that, but McMahon was also a writer and a documentary filmmaker. Clearly, when I happened upon that book about the Vatican, I found the motherlode!
How gracious of Franklin McMahon to close his letter to me, this aspiring young woman up in Vancouver someplace, with the following line: ‘Thanks again, for your good letter. Let’s keep in touch. I’ll try to send you some additional stuff from time to time and hope you’ll do the same.’ That didn’t happen – he was a busy, in-demand artist obviously – but I’ve always been grateful for his encouragement nevertheless, and never tire of looking at his work.