Ronnie Goodman, artist with ‘a visual voice’ on homelessness, 1960-2020

In recent years, Ronnie Goodman was headquartered here in his “studio” at 16th and Capp Street, outside the Redstone Building.

by TJ Johnston

Almost prophetically, Ronnie Goodman made an etching of people marching in the street and carrying a banner that reads “No More Homeless Deaths,” one in a myriad of drawings, paintings and engravings he produced. 

After a lifetime of creating art while homeless or incarcerated, on Aug. 7, Ronnie Lamont Goodman was found dead in his tent outside the Redstone Building in San Francisco’s Mission District, where he intermittently stayed and stored his drawings and illustrations. He was 60.

Goodman was a self-taught artist whose work was prominently displayed in venues ranging from the San Francisco Public Library to MoMA PS 1 in New York to the pages of Street Sheet and other homeless publications to the office of then-San Francisco Supervisor, now Mayor London Breed.

As prolific as his artistic output was, Goodman also lost many of his works to sweeps conducted by San Francisco’s police and public works departments. In one such incident in 2017, police detained him for vandalism and ticketed him for illegal lodging when he tried to prevent a public works employee from seizing 50 linocut drawings and the tent where he was sleeping.

In recalling that and similar incidents for the Stolen Belonging project in 2018, Goodman described his passion for creating art and the desperation he felt when the authorities deprived him of his handiwork and the tools he used to devise it. 

“And they took at least over a period of a year, or two years, probably 400 different art items that I need to have,” he said. “What I mean by items: drawings, sketches, drawing books, sketchbooks, painting, paints and supplies and inks and stuff like that. 

All through the 1990s (this one published April 5, 1996), Ronnie Goodman blessed the Bay View with a comic strip in almost every paper. They’d arrive by mail from his “studio” in San Quentin right on time. Usually called “J-Cat and Bootzilla” but sometimes other names, most of the strips found humor and irony in prison life. Prisoners loved them and so did the Bay View’s entire readership. In recent years, Ronnie would come by talking about wanting to resume his cartooning. 

“And right now, it’s like I’ve got to go beg for help to get some items so I can create. Because that’s what I like doing. I like drawing, I like creating on the spot. But since I don’t have that stuff, I’ve got to go out and be like everybody else. I’ve got to panhandle for some money in order to get something to eat, or in order to get some art materials, because of what the police and DPW are doing. 

“They’re making my life very, very horrendous, and they’re making it so anti-productive that it’s insane. Because I’m like, ‘Hey man, I’m an artist, and this is how I make my living.’ That’s my survival. It’s like, y’all work, and this is your survival. This is my work; this is my survival.”

A self-described “hippie child,” Goodman was born on July 25, 1960, and grew up in San Francisco’s Haight and Fillmore districts where art surrounded him and fed his muse.

He started drawing at the age of 6 and was inspired by the political activity and vibrant social experiment of the 1960s. The countercultural movement in the Haight was in full swing; redevelopment in the Fillmore uprooted mostly Black residents.

At the same time, Goodman fell into addiction and was imprisoned for burglary. During his eight and a half years in San Quentin State Prison, he made greeting cards and drew portraits in exchange for coffee, cigarettes and anything that could be bought at the prison’s commissary. 

When he was paroled in 2010, Goodman continued to devote himself to art and a long-distance running regimen. In 2014, he raced the San Francisco Half-Marathon as a fundraiser for Hospitality House, a homeless service organization that runs a community arts program. 

Through running the 13.1-mile course and auctioning off one of his paintings, he raised over $40,000. In 2016, he ran the half-marathon again, benefitting the Redstone Building, which provides space for community-based organizations on 16th and Capp streets.

The Western Regional Advocacy Project (WRAP) was another beneficiary of Goodman’s work. Art Hazelwood, the homeless organization’s self-described “minister of culture,” said Goodman’s images amplified the message of social justice movements.

“In recent years, Ronnie Goodman has been a strong visual voice for WRAP,” Hazelwood said in 2015. “He has made powerful pieces about homelessness.”

“They lock you up for just being homeless. They’d rather see you in jail than on the streets homeless.”

Those pieces often appeared in Street Sheet, the newspaper that the Coalition on Homelessness publishes. In a 2017 article he authored, Goodman advised artists: “Stay creative and stay focused and don’t try to overthink anything. 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.”

He was survived by Tanya Goodman, his wife; Nicole Goodman and Piara Goodman, his daughters; and Marinte Goodman, his son. Ronnie Goodman Jr., another son, died in 2014.

A GoFundMe has been set up to cover funeral expenses.

TJ Johnston is a reporter and assistant editor at Street Sheet (streetsheet.org), a publication of the Coalition on Homelessness. His work has also been published in SF Bay View, Street Spirit and the San Francisco Public Press, among others. Follow him on Twitter @TJJohnston415.

Ronnie Goodman, artist: ‘The Occupy Homeless Movement’

The Community Arts Program at Hospitality House exhibited the works of Ronnie Goodman in 2011. This is Ronnie’s artist’s statement about the featured drawing, a large and complex piece that measures 24 by 18 inches that is also featured here. 

by Ronnie Goodman

The print I call “The Occupy Homeless Movement” is about the persecution of being homeless. It’s also about my life having to deal with rats and bedbugs that you may encounter being homeless. But also, I believe that the musicians that I put in give hope; they represent the rhythm of life. 

“The Occupy Homeless Movement,” linocut print, 2011, by Ronnie Goodman

The Occupy Movement was always there in the print, even though I started the print before the movement. In it you see the struggle of the people – the rich people against the little people – and the little people are tired of getting stepped on. But I was working on this and the Occupy Movement came and it gave a voice and a name to what I was doing. Occupy speaks not only to homeless people but it gives voice to everyone, whatever they’re going through – foreclosure, job loss etc. It’s the voice of the people. 

The bridges in the print are ironic because people say, “At least I’m not sleeping under a bridge.” And I thought I’ll never be there too. But here I am, sleeping under a bridge. So I’m using this image of a homeless guy being crucified on a bridge. It’s like he is both dying because of the difficulties he faces but he is also condemned by society. And the UPS truck, that is just there because those are the guys that wake me up every morning when they come to work. 

Ronnie Goodman

“Homeless State Prison” is the title of the other print. They lock you up for just being homeless. They’d rather see you in jail than on the streets homeless. The cops are all the enforcers of these big strong institutions. They’re just enforcers of the rich. 

The border design is based on Japanese and African patterns that I pulled together. The border gives the print beauty and softens the edges. I always try to find something to soften the image because I get into some real painful circumstances in the image and these softening elements like the border and the musicians give my work hope. 

Both this print and the other print I call “Homeless State Prison” have a section of them that was taken from a woman printmaker of the 1930s. In “The Occupy Homeless Movement,” the central funeral parade is from a print by Adelyne Cross Eriksson about the General Strike in 1934 San Francisco. In “Homeless State Prison,” the bread line comes from a print by Claire Leighton. I feel the sorrow and the power of their work. I see the suffering of people that they capture in their work. I saw that and I added my twist. 

Ronnie’s statement was recorded and transcribed by his friend, Art Hazelwood, www.arthazelwood.com.