To draw is to see

Manifest’s Jason Franz faced his fear and found his calling

“I can’t help myself,” said Jason Franz.

He could be talking about many different things. About drawing. Or teaching. About exhibiting. Or about being a near-obsessive proselytizer for the visual arts.

Jason Franz, founder and executive director of The Manifest Center for the Visual Arts (Photo by Alexandra Franz)
Jason Franz, founder and executive director of The Manifest Center for the Visual Arts (Photo by Alexandra Franz.)

For 35 years, the 55-year-old Franz has been a formidable presence in the Cincinnati visual arts community. He’s made his way through the faculties of the Art Academy, the University of Cincinnati and Xavier University. He’s served on numerous juries and panels, spent a decade at the Cincinnati Art Museum, published books, been awarded grants and fellowships, been exhibited, sat on panels, maintained a studio and founded one of Cincinnati’s longest running galleries.

Type A, anyone?

It’s that gallery, though – the Manifest Creative Research Gallery and Drawing Center – that has placed Franz in the center of recent news. As the center’s co-founder and executive director, he made headlines when Manifest announced that it was purchasing a new home.

It was a remarkable achievement. The building is elegant, a freestanding 13,000-square-foot former funeral home on Central Parkway near Cincinnati State Technical and Community College. The new facility will allow Manifest room to grow all of its programs. And to launch a printmaking space. And to have gardens, with enough room left over for people to lounge around outside when the weather gets warmer.

Franz would never suggest that he did all of this alone. Manifest is a “humble” institution, he said, the quintessential community-driven arts organization. It took a pair of very large donations, many smaller ones and a mortgage to make it happen. But by July 1, most of the necessary structural prep work should be done and they’ll start to move in.

The cost was a hefty $680,000, roughly twice the gallery’s annual operating budget.

“But the nice thing is that there is enough space for us to have a future here,” said Franz. “The spaces are great. But we will have storage areas. And dedicated support spaces. And a real blessing – an elevator that goes from the basement to the second floor. It will help us dramatically.”

It will also have a new name: The Manifest Center for the Visual Arts. It even has a nickname – M1.

“Manifest at M1 will be like a museum, a library, a church, a school or a gymnasium – focused on the visual arts,” said the press release announcing the new home.

Franz had been looking for a new space for nearly a decade. Every time he drove around town, he’d see a building that looked intriguing. But one by one, the spaces – and there were dozens of them – would reveal themselves as not quite right.

“Either they were very expensive or in bad locations or somehow just didn’t feel right,” said Franz. “But the first time we looked at this building, we were immediately aware of it being the right fit. We knew that this was made for Manifest.”

Franz is an unlikely central character for this art world success story. He started out in rural Clermont County. The family moved to an even more rural area of central Florida when he was 4, a spot that was less than an hour from Disney World.

“But Disney World felt like it was days away to me,” said Franz, “We were poor. The good thing for me was that I got to hang out in the woods and chase alligators and snakes and things like that. In some ways, it was an idyllic childhood. But in other ways, not so much.”

As for art, there wasn’t much of it. There were a couple of craftsmen in the family, woodcarvers and cabinet makers.

“But nobody was academic,” he said, “or practiced ‘art.’”

Franz was a doodler, though, and – inspired by his grandmother’s art books – he liked to sketch stories. 

But the idea of being an artist?

“I was a shy, withdrawn boy,” he said. “When people asked what I wanted to do when I grew up, I said I wanted to be an artist. But I knew I couldn’t do it. Somehow, I had it in my mind that if you were going to be an artist, you have to model nude for one another in art school. And I was dead set against being naked in front of anybody.”

The irony is that today, life drawing is one of the most important building blocks of Manifest’s drawing program.

For the record, Franz has still not posed for a life drawing class.

After earning a degree from the Art Academy of Cincinnati, he went on to work for a decade in exhibitions at the Cincinnati Art Museum, where he played a key role in establishing the Exhibition Design Department.

But when he left the museum to work toward a master’s degree at UC’s College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning, he had a life-changing revelation.

As a graduate assistant, he was drafted into service to teach a drawing class.

 “I had to face up to one of my greatest fears – standing up in front of people and talking,” said Franz. “Up till then, I thought of myself as a reclusive artist.”

It wasn’t at all what he was expecting.

“It was amazing,” he recalls. “I felt like I was on fire with it. I realized that I was a teacher. I know that sounds silly, but up to that point, I had no idea that was my true calling. It really was a transformative experience.”

It wasn’t long before Franz, his wife Brigid O’Kane and Elizabeth Kauffman began brainstorming ways to launch a gallery and educational space focused on the often unappreciated art of drawing.

In 2004, those ideas came into being as Manifest. 

“We’ve had our ups and downs,” said Franz. “But we’ve never looked back. Drawing is essential. Learning to draw is learning to see.”

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