Frederick Franck, 97; Artist, Writer Focused on Spiritual Themes

From Times Staff and Wire Reports

Frederick Franck, whose art and writings reflected his deep interest in spirituality, died June 5 of congestive heart failure at his home in Warwick, N.Y., said his son, Lukas. He was 97.

Franck's mystical steel, glass and wood sculptures stand in public places around the country, and some of his paintings and drawings are in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.

Dozens of his works are on display at the six-acre sculpture park and meditation space he built with his wife, Claske Berndes Franck, on the site of an old grist mill near their home 50 miles north of New York City.

The park -- Pacem in Terris, or Peace on Earth -- was named for Pope John XXIII's 1963 encyclical that called for the people of the world to work for peace and justice.

The pope's reforms were a key influence in Franck's work, and the park is dedicated to the pope and others who crossed Franck's life and inspired him, including Daisetz T. Suzuki, credited by many with introducing Zen Buddhism to the West.

When Franck and his wife bought the land for $800 in 1959, it had become an unofficial town dump. They worked on it for decades, creating a transreligious sanctuary.

He was drawn to the former wasteland because he wanted "to do something that speaks directly to the human heart," Franck told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2000.

The park is open, free, to the public during summer and is often the site of concerts and weddings.

Frederick Sigfred Franck was born in 1909, the son of a shopkeeper in Maastricht, the Netherlands.

As a boy of 5, he gazed out the window during World War I at German troops marching past his home into Belgium and at the endless stream of refugees and wounded soldiers.

The horrifying tableau inspired his lifelong struggle to comprehend and portray spirituality.

His mother wanted Franck to follow his uncles into medicine, so he earned three degrees, including one from the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh.

Eventually he switched to dentistry because it gave him more time to paint and draw, and immigrated to the United States in 1939. Seven years later, he established a private dental practice in New York that he stayed with until 1966.

As a dental surgeon, Franck worked with Dr. Albert Schweitzer for three years in Gabon, where Franck sketched people and the jungle. He turned that experience into a book with his drawings, "My Days With Albert Schweitzer," published in 1958.

"When you draw people, you are in direct contact with them," Franck told the Post-Gazette. "You have to dig yourself into their features and become one of them."

He was the author of more than 30 books, many of which explored comparative religion and spirituality. Franck also was an editor of a 2000 book of collected essays from the Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa, Elie Wiesel and others, called "What Does It Mean to Be Human?"

"The Zen of Seeing -- Seeing/Drawing as Meditation" (1973) was probably Franck's best-known book.

"There's an enormous difference between looking at things and seeing things," Franck once recalled. "Only humans can see with our whole being."

He is survived by Claske, his wife of 46 years, and his son, Lukas.

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