Past and Present: the Harlem Renaissance & a discussion on visual arts featuring Artist Elbert E Franklin

Corcoran image

Between the years 1920-1930, the New Negro Movement that would come to be known as the Harlem Renaissance helped redefine how white America saw people of color and it encouraged POC to embrace our culture heritage, aesthetic and identity. The Harlem Renaissance also integrated black and white cultures while promoting economic independence and progressive politics. The Harlem Renaissance was also the stepping stone to the Civil Rights movement.


The signature visual artist of that time was a man who went by the name of Aaron Douglas. Aaron Douglas, through his work, would become known as the ‘father of Black American Art’( After moving from Kansas to Harlem in 1925, Aaron Douglas would study under German immigrant artist Winold Reiss and develop his own unique style influenced by Art Deco, and the flat profile design of Egyptian Art. His stylized representation of the negro form would come to be highly sought after by many. He is best known for a series of murals called “Aspects of Negro Life”; four panels that depicted different parts of the African-American experience.

from ‘Aspects of Nero Life’

Visual artists of the Harlem Renaissance, like the dramatists, attempted to win control over representation of their people from white caricature and denigration while developing a new repertoire of images. Prior to World War I, black painters and sculptors had rarely concerned themselves with African-American subject matter. By the end of the 1920s, however, black artists had begun developing styles related to black aesthetic traditions of Africa or to folk art.

Aaron Douglas had the education and the imagination to back his raw talent. And that is something most people can’t say about their work. The artists of the Harlem Renaissance in some cases were afforded opportunities to rise above societal expectations. We stand on the shoulders of men and women, some known and most unknown, working their fingers to the bone, for self-expression.

On Wednesday, February 7, 2018 I had the pleasure of interviewing self-taught visual artist/painter Elbert E. Franklin. Elbert E. Franklin was born on June 11, 1948 in the town of Fort Smith, Arkansas to parents Theressie and Joseph Earl Franklin. He began his visual arts career at the tender age of eight at Dunbar Elementary School.

After spending the early part of his childhood in Arkansas, Franklin would move to North Chicago, IL in August of 1960 and complete junior high and high school.

Before enlisting in the Air Force, Franklin worked as an apprentice illustrator at the electronics supply office at Great Lakes Naval Base. The commanding officer sent a letter of recommendation on Elbert Franklin’s behalf to his commanding officer regarding his work experience as an apprentice illustrator. As a result of his good work, Elbert was able to bypass 26 weeks of training for US Air Force illustrators. He was immediately appointed to the position as illustrator and assigned to Strategic Air Command. Elbert remained in the Air Force from 1967-1969 and was able to continue in art as an illustrator. After serving in the Air Force, Elbert Franklin took a civil service position at Fort Sheridan Army Post as a warehouse forklift operator in 1971 which put his art on hold.

Elbert E Franklin’s work is done in pencil

He began drawing again in 1992, after his retirement. And it was my pleasure to talk with him about his experience and his life.

UWM: Tell our readers about yourself in your own words, Mr. Franklin.

E Franklin: My name is Elbert Franklin and I’m really from the South. I was born in Fort Smith, Arkansas. I went to school there until I was 12 years old and then I moved to the town of North Chicago in 1960 and went to school from the 7th grade until I graduated from high school and from there I went into the Air Force. Did my time in the Air Force as an illustrator and I liked it. I married my wife Patricia in 1969. I have two children (Kristna Tamar, Justin Lavar) a daughter and a son, they’re grown of course, now. I have a grandson, Juwan Edward Tard, he is 21 years old and he is a good kid; got a good heart. I spend my time now fishing and I mostly like doing art. From the age of like 7 or 8 years old, I have a cousin who also does paintings and we were in competition in grade school. We both enjoyed drawing.

UWM: What kinds of things would you draw at that age?

E Franklin: Chickens, flowers, insects . . .

UWM: So anything to out do the other?

E Franklin: Yes we did. It was primarily the teachers that were in competition with each other because they were trying to prove who had a better class. It was fun.

UWM: Having grown up in the South, do you remember any hardships you personally had to endure while growing up with this visual pedigree?

E Franklin: During my time, at a young age, the black community mostly stayed in their community and the white community stayed in their community. My grandmother, an avid churchgoer, did domestic work and these art contest that they had going at that time were from church. Sunday school classes. The church would get the kids together and would compete against another church. My first contest I drew one with Moses parting the water and the other one was a little boy just walking down the street. They chose the little boy just walking down the street. And the prize was $2.50. But that was big money at the time because you could two pieces of candy for a penny, a big cookie for $0.05 or two $0.75 candy bars.

UWM: Have you ever entered any contests or entered your art into any other publications before?

E Franklin: Well, not recently. I was a member of the Lake County Art League and they host elaborate art showings with judges whom came to look at the art and judge which ones were the best. I never won, but I knew I was competing. I could deal with that. It’s like when I draw something I put what I see, and I think I have good sight. I try to put as much detail into my sketches as I can, I try to make them look as realistic as I can get them. If you got a spit bubble on your lip, it’s going on the sketch (laughs). I’m being straight up with you. Unless you tell me you don’t want it on there. I try to make it look as realistic as I can because detail is what sells. If you don’t have no detail, you don’t have no sale.

UWM: That is exactly right.

E Franklin: I like what I do. But I don’t do it all the time, sometimes I do it in spurts. I don’t guess any artist ever does anything and just sits there and does it and keeps on doing it. I do mine in spurts. Sometimes, I get the feeling to go and draw. So I’ll just keep doing it and doing it until I have about 3, 4, or 5 sketches and then when I feel like I don’t want to do it no more, I’ll just drop everything for about 6 months. When I do see something I want to express myself on as a sketch, I’ll take a picture of it or I’ll try to remember what it looked like. I have this gift and I’m still doing it but I don’t get out to promote myself as much as I should. I’m not on Facebook as of yet. I want to get out and have people see my work and appreciate it.

When you do price your work, it all depends on where you are and the cost of living, I guess. What people don’t realize is that it’s a lot more to it than just sitting there with a pencil and drawing a line. Sometimes it takes you three hours and sometimes it can take up to 4 or more days. However, it’s the time that you put into it, and if its detailed work and it looks good, why not charge the price? I can understand, times being what they are, as far as the price. You don’t look at that. You look at getting your art out there and letting people know you do exist.

UWM: Mr. Franklin I can understand your flair for detail, but how do you capture motion so well your pictures too? Like with the picture of the three dancers here.


E Franklin: When I first saw this, I looked at the movement. The picture was a photograph and it had so many details to where I figured that I could do it. I said, I can do this I know I can. So, I looked at it and I saw there that was a lot there that I had to show. As far as the detail, I tried to put all the detail I could, the muscle tone, the movement, and then if you really look at it you can almost see the veins in the ladies feet. I liked the movement and it just looked good. It was art and I wanted to draw that.


E Franklin: With the male dancers, I wanted to see if I could get the muscle tone and get the position they were in and of course, show all the details. Because the picture has a lot of details, and as you can see, I was working on it. I was trying to get it just right.

UWM: I must say, it is difficult to capture motion and with dance you are capturing a still life or part of a movement, like a sentence they are trying to write with their bodies. I especially liked the picture of the mother and child.


E Franklin: I liked that one. I saw this. That’s like a little kid that is safe, and just laid back and no worries.

UWM: And the one with President Obama and Dr. King.


E Franklin: Now, that one, I had just sketched with just Dr. Martin Luther King looking like that. Then when President Obama was in the process of becoming president, I saw that and I came up with the idea of adding President Obama as his dream. It came true.

UWM: I guess, my whole point of doing this exercise was using this experience to discuss how to translate things visually. We writers have this thing where we are taught to show not tell, and honestly, it’s something I have a hard time with.

E Franklin: It’s just like sketching. You can’t go by the basics of what they teach you at school. Just develop your own techniques. I mean, if it makes the conquest shorter than that is what you use. It can be the same and might just be smarter. It’s saved me more time, and some people are just smart enough that they know they don’t need the same thing taught to them over and over again. With my artwork, I didn’t go by the basics of drawing the egg shape of the head and dividing it up.

UWM: Where as, in high school, I had to.

E Franklin: In high school, I drew better than the art school teacher. A friend and myself, we’d never get “A’s”, we got “B’s”. (laughs) I drew what I was told to draw. But, now, my way of doing it, I start with the right eye, right eyebrow, left eye, left eyebrow, and then I do the nose, then the mouth and then I work around that. Everybody got their own way of doing things. You’ve got your own way of starting off doing what you do and I’ve got my way. If it works for you, that is what you use. The technique that’s best for you to use, that is what you use. My technique is the best that I’ve got and it works for me.

UWM: I’m glad that it works for you.

And that was it reader. Elbert E Franklin and I talked for a while longer about art and life in the south and life as an artist. I can say it is a definite miracle to be self-taught anything in this modern age. Franklin and his work are just one of those modern aged miracles a person needs to see for himself. With just two HB pencils and a couple of erasers and some paper towels, he makes magic. Like Aaron Douglas before him, he creates his own art, with his own vision.

If you like what you have seen here, you can email Elbert E. Franklin at

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