Sep. 25, 2020
San Francisco Chronicle
Even as he battled his demons of dope and homelessness year after year — sometimes winning, sometimes not — Ronnie Goodman never gave up on the one thing that drove him forward. He loved to paint pictures and murals of prison, street life, social justice. And over the past decade his reputation blossomed from San Francisco’s sidewalks to City Hall.
This month, he received his greatest recognition, an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art PS1 in New York City. But he’s not alive to see it.
Goodman, who first gained wide notice when he ran in the San Francisco Marathon in 2014 while homeless, died last month at age 60 in the ragged tent he called home for the past couple of years in the Mission District. The apparent cause was complications of drug addiction. He was due to fly to New York for the Sept. 17 opening of the six-month exhibition that features nine of his paintings in a multi-artist collection titled “Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration.”
Soft-spoken, unfailingly polite, always eager to talk about art or long-distance running — those were Goodman’s defining characteristics. Not the off-and-on struggle with drugs or the long-ago prison record that made it hard to find a job or a place to live.
“Ronnie was brilliant, and whatever his struggles, there was a light that emanated from him. It showed in his art,” said Rutgers University Professor Nicole R. Fleetwood, who curated the Museum of Modern Art exhibit. “He drew people toward him.”
Ronnie Goodman brings all of his belongs to a store on the Lower Haight where he paints, Thursday April 17, 2014, in San Francisco, Calif. Ronnie is homeless and is a serious runner training for marathons. He uses his running passion to keep himself focused and moving forward into stability and housing.
Photo: Lacy Atkins, SFC
She discovered Goodman’s art in the mid-2000s while researching prison art for her book, released in April, that shares the name of the New York exhibit. She asked the William James Association, a nonprofit that provides prison art classes throughout California, to connect them, “but he was unhoused and hard to locate — it took awhile to find him.”
After they met, she found his portraits, particularly those he did in San Quentin State Prison, to be unusually evocative. So when she organized the Museum of Modern Art show he was an easy pick.
As she put the show together, she learned Goodman’s art was in a documentary titled “Aggie,” about art collector and philanthropist Agnes “Aggie” Gund, that was featured at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. And that a poster of his is included in an online Museum of Modern Art portfolio of dozens of artists’ work portraying the Occupy movement.
“I’m very sad that he passed,” Fleetwood said quietly.
San Francisco Mayor London Breed was moved by Goodman’s gentle artistic nature well before she was elected to office. She met him in 2011 when she was director of the African American Art & Culture Complex and he was working out of a studio on Haight Street but crashing on couches at night.
Over the years, she helped him arrange two places to live, exhibited his work in City Hall, hung his paintings in her office — and urged him — over and over — to stabilize his life.
“He struggled,” Breed said. “Poor guy. There were so many people who really loved and appreciated him, and when I found out a year or so he was homeless again on Capp Street, it was heartbreaking.
“I liked his work a lot. And I don’t like everybody’s work. I’m pretty particular. But I was a fan. His art came from the heart,” she said.
Wherever he lived, whether it was in small apartments where he eventually was ousted for keeping too much clutter in artworks and supplies, or in tents on the sidewalk, Goodman always had a paintbrush nearby. His work mostly involved finely detailed depictions of street life and prison time, impressionistic scenes of shopping carts, jazz players or crowds that drove home the dignity of the downtrodden.
This is a photo of San Francisco homeless artist Ronnie Goodman’s portion of the MoMA PS1 exhibit that opened in September 2020, “Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration.”
Photo: Photo Courtesy Museum of Modern Art PS1, New York, MoMA PS1
It was a tableau he knew well. He told The Chronicle in 2014 that he had wasted much of his young life on drugs and alcohol, and he did prison time dating back to 1980 for burglary, robbery and other charges.
He finished his last sentence, for burglary, at San Quentin in 2010 — by then, he’d determined to never go back. He’d been sober a year, blossomed as a painter in the prison studio and helped inaugurate the prison’s long-distance running program.
“I was out of control as a younger man, and I am deeply ashamed of the crimes I did,” he said in 2014. “My life is now about being a positive influence in life, not a negative one, creating art and showing love for my fellow human beings.”
Dr. Josh Bamberger, who specializes in homeless clients and helped Goodman, admired his spirit in the face of the odds against anyone with a prison record.
“Ronnie had such a big heart and a wonderful way of seeing the world,” he said. “Why should the bad choices he made early in his life define him? We all make mistakes in life. He was incredibly skilled.”
In 2014 Goodman was living in a tent under Highway 101 and using a friend’s studio to paint. A Chronicle story about his efforts to right his life and run the San Francisco Marathon inspired the race organizers to feature him as a fundraiser for Hospitality House, a homeless resource center where a community arts program helped Goodman refine his skills. He wound up raising $10,000 for the program.