Ronnie Goodman was a quintessential outsider artist, and not just because he refined his craft behind bars while serving time in San Quentin.
The Mission District denizen spent much of his adult life on the street, where he managed to maintain his creative output as a painter and muralist with a gift for capturing the humanity of the people around him. In a tale worthy of O. Henry, Goodman died of an overdose in his tent at 16th and Capp streets in September, 2020, just days before he was due to make his first trip to New York City, where his work was part of the multi-artist exhibition “Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration” at the Museum of Modern Art PS1.
Long before Goodman’s portraits started gaining recognition in New York art circles, he was a ubiquitous and beloved presence in the Mission, and a new documentary about his life vividly captures his charisma and insistent creativity. A 28-minute film by Jeanne Hallacy, “He Had Wings,” premieres Sunday, Dec. 4, in the Koret Auditorium of the main San Francisco Public Library in advance of a panel discussion on homelessness moderated by the San Francisco Chronicle’s Kevin Fagan.
The venue for the event “was chosen very mindfully,” said Hallacy, a former longtime Mission resident who now divides her time between Bangkok, Thailand, and the San Francisco Community Land Trust’s Purple House cooperative in the lower Haight. “The library was a home for Ronnie, a place he frequented daily. It was really significant to present him at a place he felt so comfortable. He loved books, especially browsing art and music books. I’m so pleased we could bring his story home.”
More than a study of a brilliant, troubled artist, “He Had Wings” is a joint portrait of Goodman and his close friend, “Coach” Alton McSween, who was also derailed in midlife by substance abuse. The men met in San Quentin, where McSween helped found and run the prison’s 1000 Mile Club track team. Goodman became an avid runner, and initially gained notice in 2014 as the first homeless person to compete in the San Francisco Marathon, an undertaking he used to raise more than $10,000 for Hospitality House.
Joe Wilson, the executive director of Hospitality House, will be on hand for the post-screening panel discussion, along with Dr. Margot Kushel, director of the Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative, and Matty Shirer, director of San Francisco and San Mateo Downtown Streets Team. The discussion also includes Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director for Coalition on Homelessness, which recently filed a lawsuit challenging the City of San Francisco’s policies regarding homelessness.
In one of “He Had Wings’” most painful scenes, Goodman is overcome with emotion after he loses all of his personal possessions and artwork when the city clears out a homeless encampment, an abject example of the city’s “bag and tag” policy.
Goodman wasn’t always homeless. “He Had Wings” caught up to him when he was buzzing with excitement about moving into a basement space in the historic Redstone Building, a location that ended up being “a double-edged sword, with its proximity to a street community that created more temptation to use again,” Hallacy said. “But at the time, it was a great joy. He had shelter and [was] excited about turning that basement into a community art space.”
She first met Goodman at one of the most difficult moments in his life, following the murder of his son, 20-year-old graffiti artist Ronnie Goodman, Jr. She ended up making the short film “Father & Son Artists,” and stayed in touch with him over the years.
“When we first met he was in top physical shape, running daily,” she recalled. “People were taking notice, including Nike. He was very much focused on a healthy body, healthy soul and healthy mind, working diligently, and very prolifically. Due to various circumstances, he had a parting ways with the Redstone Building, and moved to the corner right there, outside of it.”
With a powerful jazz-infused score by San Francisco street saxophonist TopCat, “He Had Wings” offers a close look at an array of Goodman’s work, including incisive portraits of friends and acquaintances from prison and the streets, his remarkably expressive linotype prints, and canvases portraying musicians he loved, like John Coltrane and Charles Mingus. He also worked extensively on murals in the neighborhood, including one on the Victoria Theatre at 16th and Capp streets.
His ability to capture the spirit of his subjects seemed to flow from his love for the people around him. Even as he struggled, Goodman advocated for people living on the street, and helped raise money for organizations fighting homelessness.
“Ronnie was the ad-hoc mayor of 16th and Capp,” Hallacy said. “He knew everyone, and had time for everyone. He had a vibrancy, and people were drawn to him. He exuded a certain possibility. There he was, painting or sketching every day. His circumstances weren’t preventing him from being who he was, an artist.”