by Nicola White
“Forest” – Art: Anthony C. Oliver, P.O. Box H-79800, 1-EB-109, San Quentin State Prison, San Quentin CA 94974. Anthony would love to have a penpal of any age and gender who likes art.
“Art is the journey of a free soul.” – Alev Oguz, Turkish artist
Last June, an inspiring and thought provoking art exhibition took place in London, in the UK. From June 24 to July 6, 2016, approximately 20 inmates from San Quentin’s death row showcased their work alongside mine; I make collages and sculptures from discarded objects I pick up along the banks of the River Thames.
In my Tideline Art, I use objects washed up on the river banks which society consider they have no further use for and have discarded. These objects are given a new life in a piece of art.
Similarly, the men involved in this exhibition, largely forgotten about by society and given up on, show through their artwork, that they do still have something of value to offer the world and that beauty and hope can emanate from a place more known for sadness and despair. The name of the exhibition was ArtReach (reaching out with art), and the aim of it was to enable prisoners to share their work with the outside world, and also to highlight the importance of creativity to those experiencing difficult circumstances.
“Art is the highest form of hope.” – Gerhard Richter
How did this art exhibition come about? I have been writing to a prisoner on San Quentin death row for about six years now, and in April 2015 I went to visit him. My penfriend often sends me wonderful cards made by his fellow inmates, and during our visit I asked him about them.
“Rooster Pride” – Art: Royal Clark, J-51100, 3-EB-87L, San Quentin State Prison, San Quentin CA 94974
As an artist I know how very life enhancing and valuable it is to be able to share our creations and writings with others, and I wanted to offer this opportunity to the prisoners. I asked Steve, my penfriend, if he thought that anyone would like to participate in a London exhibition.
He thought it was a good suggestion and so on my return to the UK I prepared a few flyers and sent them to him. They were distributed amongst some of the prisoners, and within a couple of months, pieces of outstanding artwork and poetry were dropping through my letterbox! I was astounded at the quality and the vibrancy of the work by these San Quentin artists.
The artwork and poetry was displayed in a gallery in London, and hundreds of visitors stopped by to admire the work. There was such a variety of styles, including acrylic paint, handkerchief art, pen and ink drawings, pencil sketches and ink stippling. One resourceful inmate even used the dye from M&M sweets for paint, and a feather as a paintbrush. Also displayed was a death row cookbook and Steve Champion’s death row memoir “Dead to Deliverance.”
“Prison art is an expression of the human spirit and imagination, just as barbed wire, gun towers and steel bars serve as daily reminders of lost freedom, privacy and human dignity.” – Larry Brewster, University of San Francisco
“A Spirit Cannot Die” – Poem: Steve Champion, C-58001, and Anthony Ross, C-58000, San Quentin State Prison, San Quentin CA 94974
A comments book for visitors is full of the thoughts of those who saw the work. A copy of these comments will be sent to each participating artist. Some of the comments read:
“A truly marvellous exhibition! A testament to the hitherto hidden talent of these men. Incarcerated and forgotten by society, thank you for giving them the opportunity to showcase their incredible artistic skills. Bravo!” – Harry Beck
“Have been feeling a bit sorry for myself lately, and then I came (by chance!) to your exhibition. Thank you. You have given me strength and inspiration again. Love to you all.” – Julie
“Absolutely exquisite work and thought-provoking back stories. Thank you for making me think!” – Florence
“A rare opportunity to realize that these artists are people before being inmates. Everyone has feelings and a soul. Thank you.” – Cecile
What do I hope to achieve through ArtReach? Whatever you think about the death penalty, the artwork and poetry in this exhibition has provided an insight into the minds of the men incarcerated on death row San Quentin. Inspiration, regrets, happiness, sadness, yearnings, longings.
Everyone has the right to express themselves through creativity. What would be wonderful is if the death row inmates of San Quentin could have access to art lessons. At the moment, artwork is created in solitary confinement.
Whatever you think about the death penalty, the artwork and poetry in this exhibition has provided an insight into the minds of the men incarcerated on death row San Quentin. Inspiration, regrets, happiness, sadness, yearnings, longings.
You can see for yourself some of the San Quentin artwork on instagram @deathrow.art.