Since mid-spring, in the alley between the 1150 blocks of Taylor and Lyman avenues, Jonathan Franklin has been growing a patch of recycled art where his vegetable garden once grew.

His repurposed sculpture garden, constructed from cut-up tables, reclaimed door knobs, old drumsticks, spent pencils, an ongoing collection of colorful marker caps, old mop and broom heads — aka his “broom family” — and goodness knows what else.

It pains Franklin to throw anything away, so it is reincarnated as art.

“As a painter [and artist], I am forever scrutinizing and re-evaluating my work. Recycling, regenerating and reinventing. All three elements play a significant role, not only in my life but in my art as well,” he says. “This precept directly affects how I work and what I choose to create. It is one of the reasons why I am constantly returning to older work. It is a way to somehow reclaim the past and transform it into something entirely new and different in the present, to be enjoyed in the future.”

Around the Oak Park area, Franklin, a 2003 recipient of the Illinois Arts Council Fellowship, has a significant body of work, much of which has been seen by the public at large. From 1979 through today, Franklin’s art has been in more than 100 local, national and international solo and selected group shows; has had several public art displays, including two versions of “Pigs” in Oak Park in 2006 and 2008; “Cool Globes” in Chicago in 2007; and “Dinosaurs” at Sci-Tech Museum, Aurora in 2006. He also has multiple murals “hanging” around Oak Park, everywhere from local school buildings to the Metra train embankment.

He says his most memorable public mural is titled “Katie’s Wahl” (Wednesday Journal, July 17, 2012), which was based on a touching random encounter he had while creating it. The mural is now located along North Boulevard, just east of Oak Park Avenue.

Franklin has a piece in the Oak Park Public Library’s permanent collection (the study carrel just east of the library gallery), three paintings at Trattoria 225 on Harrison, and another three works are part of a larger Shakespeare Exhibition called Chicago Artists Interpret Shakespeare. “As They Like It” will go up at Bowling Green State University in Ohio later this month.

That particular project began two years ago when a friend invited him to submit work to be included in the exhibition. Franklin contributed a painting related to Hamlet and an installation referencing Richard III. He says it was a dry “humor-ish” piece that featured King Richard with the heads of his six dead rivals at his side, which he created from several old recycled mop heads.

“For all my projects, I find and recycle the wood,” says Franklin, 60. “I build the frames. I stretch the canvas and I paint the pictures. All of the work starts from the same point. The figure is the point of reference and the point of departure. Each painting becomes a different story, but the voice is still the same. All my art is stuff that is somehow found or reinvented.”

The 2013 alley side sculpture garden emerged last Spring when the previous year vegetables wouldn’t grow next to his garage, and as an artist, this growing season he had to figure out how to artfully repurpose “all these little painted heads” he had made from recycled wood, as well as the blank space.

“I had cut apart a table and I had all these ends and squares, and I really liked the way the pieces fit together,” he said. “With discarded things, if I can make it into something that is beautiful or intriguing, rather than whatever it is that is laying around and being discarded, it is more useful, which is a good thing,” he says. “If you take things out of context, suddenly they are beautiful.”

Lost and found

Leaving the smallest environmental footprint possible is paramount for Franklin as an artist who builds things with the discarded wood he scavenges to make frames that hold a profusion of oil-painted canvases.

“Every morning I do a slow run through the alley — or what I call, ‘a period of meandering’ — where I wander around and find things,” says Franklin, who has three adult children and resides in Oak Park with his wife, Linda. “Everything in my Sculpture Garden, for example, is disposable and now quite beautiful, interesting and intriguing.”

Though he was born in Michigan, Franklin spent much of his childhood in Vietnam, Bangladesh and Indonesia, where he often witnessed abject poverty.

“It is very hard to describe this in terms of western poverty,” he says. It burnished this idea in place for me — if I don’t need, I don’t want, and I never personally buy anything unless I actually need it. That gave me a sense of perspective and balance about what is important and what is redundant in life. I would feel very uncomfortable if I somehow forgot that.”

As a young man, during time he spent as a soldier in the Israeli army, he would collect the crumpled and rusty K-ration cans he found littering the desert. Years later in his home, they form an homage to the works of Marcel Duchamp and cubism.

“I still have those crumpled, rusted cans, and I have put them on a pedestal and they are beautiful. As an artist, I love the idea of finding just about anything and turning it into a piece to behold,” Franklin says.

The artist who received his MFA from the University of Michigan now walks through life regularly “rescuing” gratuitously discarded furniture and perfectly good bags of clothing. Usually after fixing or laundering the throwaways, he’ll ferry the fixed furniture or folded clothes to Goodwill or the Salvation Army so someone else can use them.

And so it goes and goes, exemplified by his sculpture garden, where all that “junk,” he says, has become a pretty patch of artfully repurposed flowers and plants for everyone to enjoy.

“I will probably put a birdhouse here at some point,” he says. “I am not going to take it in. It’s plastic, this is wood. Nothing here is valuable, and it is all stuff that has aged quite well. If things disintegrate, I will play with it,” he adds. “People honk when they fly by, and another neighbor says it always makes her smile when she sees it.”

A hoarder comes clean

Jonathan Franklin on the frugality of his art:

“Although I don’t believe I am, there are those who think I am … a hoarder. Yes, OK, I admit it. I collect lots of weird stuff. Why? Because you never know when it might come in handy. In honor of Earth Day, there was a call from the local library to collect plastics caps and lids — not to throw them into a recycling bin but to make art. Well, over years of teaching and painting and never being able to let anything go, I accumulated bins and bags of plastic lids, cups, tops and marker caps, scraps of wood and who knows what else. It finally occurred to me that after of years of trying to coax my scraggly tomato plants into bearing even a handful of fruit, it was time to try something entirely new. I decided that this season there would be no more weeds and vegetables growing in my garden. This year it’s time to go back — not to nature but to my bins and bags. It’s plastic and wood scraps all the way, baby!”

Join the discussion on social media!

Deb Quantock McCarey

Deb Quantock McCarey is an Illinois Press Association (IPA) award-winning freelance writer who has worked with Wednesday Journal Inc. since 1995, writing features and special sections for all its publications....

One reply on “The three aRts: recycling, regenerating, reinventing”