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Margaret Lefranc and Martha Kaplan

Landing in New York (1970, oil on canvas) by Margaret Lefranc is an abstract work in the sense that it does not include a recognizable image. Entirely nonrepresentational, of all of Margaret’s works it comes closest to pure psychic self-expression until she created her monotypes after 1986, some of which are abstract in the same sense. In its explosion of color, this painting gives visual form to something inherently non-visual: Margaret’s emotions or sensations when a plane landing in New York, or her sense of the energy and vibrations emanating from the city. The color red might represent the passion or energy or even anger that Margaret perceived from the city when she arrived in New York, the sense of the excitement of New York City as one looks down on it at night from a plane coming in for a landing. It is the title of the work that directs the mind to such an interpretation and if Margaret had titled her work differently, we would be looking at the color forms and lines in it to provide other explanations of their meaning [1].

Margaret was always eager to visit her Hunter, New York farmhouse and its decades of memories. Living with Margaret Lefranc’s life and art for years, Sandra McKenzie [2] was told that if this work of art had been painted later, Lefranc would have painted it in darker colors and named it Betrayal, a reference to the Hunter home which Margaret saved from the court house steps when she had returned from Europe decades earlier. Margaret was deeply hurt by her brother, and they never spoke again, not even before he died in 1994. Typically, when betrayed, Lefranc spoke her feelings into a tape recorder turned on as she hammered on nails to construct numerous art racks for her studio. It was also the year McKenzie and Margaret forged a fifteen-year correspondence that led to joining forces in 1990 and living together in Miami and Santa Fe which bolstered Lefranc, for her best friend Gilpin was deceased.

Martha Kaplan [3] looked deceptively healthy when she arrived at the 1999 exhibition for Margaret Lefranc, Woman Artist, Swope Art Museum [4], Terre Haute, Indiana, in conjunction with Harriet McNeal, professor of art history at Indiana State University. McNeal included a discussion of Margaret’s art in her college classes and suggested that Margaret was doing with nudes in the 1920s what Philip Pearlstein, the very successful contemporary artist, started doing at that time with a nude, cutting off part of the head and part of the body. 

Kaplan, a self-trained artist always educating herself, began her art career at age eleven when she visited the Museum of Modern Art in New York and was mesmerized by a painting by Mexican David Alfaro Siquerios. It was then she decided that she would be an artist. As she stood in front of Lefranc’s paintings, Kaplan had already been painting for approximately thirty-five years. She had traveled to Turkey, Spain, Mexico, and Guatemala and, once back in the United States with her husband, wound up in 1970 being caretakers at a farm where they lived with no water or electricity—much like Margaret had lived in Nambe, New Mexico. Eventually through a government program of non-traditional work for women, Martha wound up with a degree in building trades and worked with several power companies in Indiana where she met her fiancée, friend, and eventual assistant and caregiver, Eric Meadors. Martha resigned from a supervisory position after contracting multiple diseases and accompanying disabilities. Over the years almost all of her joints were replaced, and at the same time most of her skin was gradually shriveling and pressing into her organs. Her hands became almost claw like, and she had to learn how to reuse them seven times. Margaret’s paintings at the Swope seemed to resonate with her. During this exhibition, she was already fifteen years into her thirty-five-year struggle to stay physically and mentally vibrant and productive, and she was going downhill rapidly.


Labyrinth #96, Night-Colors Last Labyrinth (2015, oil on canvas) by Martha Kaplan was named appropriately since this was her last painted, though it was to have been a series of one hundred. The first was dated 2011. However, with this last one, Kaplan could barely hold a brush. The middle of the painting reveals odd bristle hair marks of black paint on white space where she dropped the paint brush. She would not get to #100. However, she did paint other art from 2015 until her death. During her life she had catalogued three thousand to four thousand works of art consisting of acrylic and metallic acrylic, pastels, pen and ink drawings, sumi ink, and more stored in a 3,500 square foot studio in downtown Sullivan. When she couldn’t paint because she couldn’t move, she meditated on her next possible works of art: “I was raised in three different faiths.” [5] She was influenced by being reared Catholic by her mother, Protestant by her grandmother and Jewish by her Orthodox grandfather. She concentrated on the Navajo pathway on ceremonial baskets, symbolic use of color influenced by the Kabbalah based on the esoteric interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures, perhaps Catholic icons and much more.   

During her lifetime, Kaplan exhibited mainly in places easily accessible considering her tenuous health, the states of Indiana and Illinois. However, she looked forward and planned in 2007 a long trip for her and Meadors’ visit to Santa Fe, New Mexico to see Margaret Lefranc’s home and studio and to attend A Lifetime of Imaging: The Art of Margaret Lefranc, 100th Birthday Exhibition/Celebration, film screening, book signing by Lois Katz, remarks by Sandra McKenzie at the Gerald Peters Gallery and a dinner for special guests. 


Kaplan was buried in a pine box in a small country cemetery beside a lake with Eric following her wishes and taking care of her as he faithfully had for twenty years. 

[1] Lois Katz analysis in A Lifetime of Imaging: The Art of Margaret Lefranc, pg. 227, published by Nouveau Ventures Unlimited, Inc. in association with the Margaret Lefranc Art Foundation.

[2] Sandra McKenzie, friend and President of the Margaret Lefranc Art Foundation, formed in 1994.

[3] Martha Schertzer Kaplan, 1950-2018, born in Manhattan and later moved to Sullivan, Indiana, where she had a studio.

[4] David Butler, Director, 1995-2000.

[5] Brian Miller, Spectrum, Artside-Inside Intrview with Martha Kaplan, pgs. 20-23, published by Arts illiana, #35, 2016

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