Many artists and homes have enlivened this column, but perhaps not one as poignant as this. Atlanta native Phyllis Alterman Franco graduated Grady High School and proceeded to earn a BS and master’s degrees in visual arts, build a life of fine artistry including teaching piano, all intertwined with family. Married to retired neurologist Richard Franco for 63 years, Phyllis succumbed to Alzheimer’s Disease in 2022. The Franco’s were featured in a PBS Special, “Your Fantastic Mind,” in 2020.
Individuals like Phyllis may grace this Earth for a short time, but her riveting paintings tell scores of enduring lessons about the preciousness and precariousness of life, and the beauty awaiting just outside the front door.
Enjoy Richard and daughter, Meryl’s, tour of their stone clad, mid-century modern Buckhead home.
Marcia: Share some of the family-oriented art Phyllis executed.
Richard: One of my favorites is the scarlet interpretation she did of depicting both of our families uniting at our rehearsal dinner. Eastern meets Southern Europe. The Sephardic Francos on one side of the table, across from the Ashkenazi Alterman’s. Turkey versus Poland getting all mixed together with a telling Oriental Rug as the backdrop.
Marcia: She also painted the children and you.
Richard: In my study is a large painting with nine segments depicting various kids’ scenes…son, Lewis, playing the guitar, Rebecca at 16 on the boat, and Meryl with Pumpkin, the dog. In the dinette area is a symbolically loaded portrait of me she did in 1980 in California standing by the Pacific Ocean where she is interpreting my mindset – a calm ocean with a storm coming. I am obviously preoccupied about my residency and returning to Atlanta, “standing on the edge,” so to speak.
Marcia: What about entering the house makes it Phyllis’?
Richard: She created the two large gray and mustard paintings outside by the front door which literally have been sheltered from any weather concerns. In the foyer, we can almost see the real, life-sized Phyllis that she constructed for her graduate thesis at GSU…waving and ever welcoming.
Marcia: Inside your home, we feel cascading and moving water in many paintings.
Richard: She was always interpreting the landscape, blowing grasses. My favorite, “The River Is Calling,” has misty, watery pale hues of mint green rivulets. In medical training, I was “on call” leaving in the dark and returning in the dark, stressed; and she knew that I could be refreshed by a visit to the Chattahoochee. Sometimes, she would capture reflections in water also. Some of her water visions had different textures and expanded into foam.
In the foyer is her large abstract landscape of cascading water. Note the pieces of canvas subtly and purposefully painted over with threads as a revision to the painting. It has subliminal layers of nature, skies, and the mystery of the unknown. In the dining room is a nature-inspired painting on plexiglass
Marcia: What about the aviary kingdom intrigued her?
Richard: Actually, my favorite treatment of Phyllis’ is by the front door, a bird escaping in four escalating versions as a symbol of freedom. Some of her black and white works mimicked birds in motion. And the two sets of large diptychs…one showing a mother bird feeding the chick in its bill. They are called “Angel birds” since that is listed as a title in one of her artwork lists.) Birds were always escaping into freedom…of leaving, with movement.
Marcia: What are some works by others that you collect here?
Richard: In the foyer, we have a Deborah Fritts prayer besieging a person as a bird with hands as wings open to the skies and in prayer.
We collected various pieces from the Piedmont Art Festival including the Maplethorpe wooden bowl, the giant glass bowl, ceramic pieces, and framed photography.
Marcia: When Phyllis’ Alzheimer’s disease progressed, how did this affect her art?
Meryl: In her workshop/studio out back, during one phase, her paintings shifted to representations of doors. It seemed that she was aware of life shifting and she was peering through new doors that were opening to a new time with a different awareness unfolding. Her gratitude, love, and wonder were always evolving – even with her disease. As children in her studio here, she encouraged us to express ourselves freely. She once asked me to paint a dog on her studio wall which thrilled me, and it’s still there.
Marcia: What in heaven’s name is the Hebrew letter sculpture – it is so divergent from her natural work.
Richard: Phyllis’ creativity knew no bounds. Those Hebrew letters mean absolutely nothing. They are just letters mixed together. It’s made from kitty litter! Great story here. After she did it, she said she had nightmares of the then-Ahavath Achim’s rather stern Rabbi Epstein chasing her, yelling, “Do you know what you have said?”
Marcia: How would you describe your mother’s inspiration?
Meryl: While diving into the sacred mysteries hidden within the rivers, trees, and birds, she uncovered our oneness with the natural world and unveiled layers of beauty in the constantly changing landscapes of life itself. Through her “gestures of creation” (as she once wrote on my wall), she was in a continuous conversation with creation itself, pointing towards the freedom found through the creative process. Many images like her birds are larger than life – always in motion -growing, evolving, and transforming as in her “angel birds”- celebrating their essence and spirits soaring. She often played with the contrast of light and dark as equal parts of a beautiful, integral whole. I am forever grateful for these treasures she has left us. I feel her spirit in every piece as her art continues to embrace, lift and inspire us in infinite ways.
Marcia: Last word.
Meryl: What a privilege to see the wonder of beauty through her eyes. She was an artist in every sense and shared her creative passions generously. “Au Clair de la Lune” was her favorite piano piece which she taught her granddaughter and then loved hearing her play it. Her creative heart was continually overflowing, and her ability to shower us with profound and unconditional love astounded and blessed us everyday.