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Ronnie Goodman.
Ronnie Goodman.

Ronnie Goodman (1960–2020)

Ronnie Goodman, a prolific painter and long-distance runner known in the Bay Area for uplifting the disempowered through his art and activism, died on August 7 at the age of sixty of undisclosed causes. Born in Los Angeles, Goodman took up drawing from an early age, inspired by comic books and the artists who lived and worked in San Francisco’s Lower Haight area, where he grew up. He returned to artmaking while incarcerated in San Quentin State Prison, where he became known for his compassionate portraits of fellow imprisoned people. “I am inspired by the beauty of this city and its diversity, balanced with the struggles of human despair,” he once said. “With my brush, I try to capture these raw emotions in painted images.”

Next year, MoMA PS1 in New York will show Goodman’s work as part of a survey related to Nicole R. Fleetwood’s book Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration (2020), in which the artist figures prominently (the PS1 show, originally slated for April, was postponed due to the pandemic). In Goodman’s prison portraits, Fleetwood writes, sitters are “elevated from the austerity and constraint of their environment,” and “reflect his love of movement and light, along with his commitment to his artistic growth and self-assertion during his years in California state prisons.” While he often featured musical motifs in his work and repeatedly illuminated the plights and humanity of society’s most vulnerable populations, Goodman was hesitant to name a single theme in his work. “Rhythm is my theme,” he said.

An avid runner, Goodman founded the San Quentin Marathon, a 26.2-mile race around the prison yard. In 2014, Goodman auctioned one of his paintings and ran a half-marathon to raise nearly $40,000 for the art program at Hospitality House, a community center in the Tenderloin. His work, held in the collections of the Rhode Island School of Design Museum and New York’s Museum of Modern Art, was given a solo exhibition at the San Francisco Public Library and is permanently installed at San Francisco’s City Hall. During the 1990s, his art found a wide and regular viewership in the city’s Bay View newspaper, where he mailed a comic strip from San Quentin. In a 2017 account of his life published in Street Sheet, a newspaper focused on San Francisco’s unhoused community, Goodman gave advice to aspiring artists: “Stay creative and stay focused and don’t try to overthink anything,” he wrote. “Come from the heart and how you feel. Try to step back a few steps and listen to others’ opinions and reflect on it. But don’t stop, don’t ever stop creating. Just do it because you truly love what you’re doing. The rest will come.”