Staring at a Ruth Franklin painting, you’re taken to a soul-stirring place where your eyes can only focus on the powerful portrait looking back at you. This Decatur-based artist, born and raised in England, tirelessly works to create amazing, honest pieces that will enhance décor but also make passers-by think. Her work has been shown all over the world, and last year she was voted Best Established Visual Artist in Creative Loafing’s Best of ATL.
We stopped by Ruth Franklin’s Decatur studio to get to know the woman behind the paintbrush as our newest Atlanta FACE.
How would you define your artistic style?
With difficulty. Fluid maybe. It’s figurative, in that you can recognize people or horizons, sky and land, etc. I like playing with color and light. If I could describe it well, then I should probably be a writer, not a painter.
You were born in England. How did you end up in the states, particularly in Atlanta?
I had a friend who I had gone to school with in England, who was half-American, half-English. After I’d finished art school in the ’80s, I visited her in Florida, which is where I met my husband. He lived in Decatur, so after we married, that’s how I ended up here.
Is there a difference between American art enthusiasts/collectors and British ones?
It’s hard to say how art enthusiasts from either side of the pond differ. The English probably are more reserved in their judgment. Also, there’s usually more familiarity with and awareness of European art, simply because of geography.
What is your artistic process, or is there such a thing?
There definitely is such a thing as an artistic process. I often find myself looking at things and thinking, I’d like to paint that. It could be an old photograph I picked up at a yard sale or something I’ve snapped myself. Often, it’s some image I ripped out of a magazine or newspaper. (The Enquirer is an endless source of inspiration!)
I “draw” in paint to start out, then begin to describe what I am seeing. Truth is stranger than fiction, so I try not to overthink the correctness of something and instead try to get the sense of how it goes. Inevitably, at some point, I slap on, say, a vibrant cobalt green, it hits a color I had left there from the drawing and something odd happens — a kind of alchemy that I didn’t plan but is far more interesting than anything I may have dreamt up. That’s when I try to capitalize on and recognize the possibilities of what the painting will look like. It’s a bit like a roller-coaster ride from then on, risky at times, trundling uphill at others. The best you can hope for is that it’s an exhilarating experience that pushed you a bit but made you want to do it again and again.
How do you define success? Are you “there?”
I define success as being happy and healthy, my family and friends being happy and healthy, and staying interested and compelled enough to keep working. Everything is temporary. I’m happy if I can just do a good painting or drawing.
What’s your favorite place to grab a bite in Atlanta?
I cook at home quite a lot, so going out to eat has to be worth the trouble. I never say no if asked to go to Mary Mac’s Tea Room on Ponce de Leon Avenue.
Based on your bio, you’ve been showing your work in other areas of the South. What brought you back to Atlanta? How does Atlanta’s art world differ from the rest of the South?
I have my studio in Decatur, so when people see something they like on my website, they make an appointment to visit. In that respect, my work’s always on show here, plus I do the occasional pop-up or group show around town. Showing in other places just happens organically. If I’m approached by a gallery and I like the people and the place, then I’ll do it generally. It’s always nice if it’s in a city that I want to visit, too.
I suppose each location around America is bound to have a good selection of its own regional art, as well as the usual fare. Atlanta can boast Kara Walker, whose work depicting the antebellum South, in particular, is both thought-provoking and stunning. Let’s not forget Howard Finster, R.A. Miller, Nellie Mae Rowe and all the other folk artists who also characterize a particular facet of the South so well.
What should someone know about buying art for their home?
My personal feeling about buying art for your home is hopefully what most people think, namely, you should like what you buy.
Your pieces are extremely powerful. How do you choose your subjects?
Everyone is drawn to certain things for a mixture of reasons. Some people collect pigs because they like pigs. They don’t know why, they just do. It’s as simple as that. I go through phases of courtship with different subject matter. I had a fling with boxers at one point, then Depression-era Southern farms. Transvestites, hairdressers, prostitutes and seascapes have all put in an appearance along the way. I endlessly return to my own particular collections, and they are very familiar to me, like old friends.
What should Atlanta art enthusiasts know about your artwork and the significance that goes behind each paint stroke?
Only that I try really hard to do a good job.
Not including your Decatur studio, what’s your favorite place in the city to clear your mind and why?
Historic Decatur Cemetery — it’s like a small nature haven with old trees and a little lake that the Canada geese visit twice a day. There’s a duck that’s been there for over 20 years, who I call Elvis because he’s got a quiff. It’s a good place to clear my mind because it’s full of very quiet, interesting people.
What’s one place you have yet to visit that you are dying to go and why?
Elton John’s house, so I can see his photography collection.
Do you have a favorite painting? If so, what is it and why?
I like a lot of different paintings by different artists for different reasons. It’s almost impossible to narrow it down to one. Chaim Soutine’s “The Room Service Waiter” is in my top five for its deeply resonant colors and arresting honesty. Francis Bacon was the master of graphic economy of line mixed with painterly rough-hewn insanity. Frank Auerbach has long been a favorite mainly because he’s always gone for it and still does, at age 84! Francisco de Goya was a genius in both printmaking and painting, darkly human and timeless.
I could go on and on, but I’ll end with Hans Holbein’s “The Ambassadors,” a technical tour de force from the Dutch painter that still looks contemporary. There’s an eerily and brilliantly distorted skull, front and center of the painting, that’s so in your face you almost don’t notice it at first. It makes Damien Hirst’s diamond-encrusted skull look like a cheap trick executed by a bored huckster who thinks the price of his art in some way equates to the quality of it. It doesn’t.
P.S. Richard Diebenkorn, can’t leave him out!
What is your best piece of advice you can offer?
Remain hopeful. Try not to think too much about the fact that we’re just a virus with shoes.
What are three things you can’t live without (with the exception of family, friends, faith)?
Cheese. Cats. Coffee. Working on a picture makes four, but if I am painting with my cat sitting next to me whilst drinking a cup of coffee and nibbling on a bit of cheddar, can we count it all as one?!
Thank you to Ruth Franklin for letting us interrupt her creative process and explore her fascinating studio! And, as always, a huge thanks to CatMax Photography for these gorgeous photos.