After serving 40 plus years, former San Quentin resident Gary Harrell earned a fellowship award in March for his artistic work. His artwork started as an act of self-preservation to help him endure the deprivation and hardship of prison life.
Harrell was one of six individuals who had their artwork recognized by Right of Return. The New York City-based organization rewards formerly incarcerated artists who display exceptional creativity with a $20,000 fellowship, reported The Sacramento Bee.
“Some people pump themselves up to be a lot tougher than they really might be,” said Benjamin Ballard, a formerly-incarcerated artist who knew Harrell from San Quentin. “But Gary never had that kind of persona. He was more down to earth and straightforward and humorous and everything.”
In 2020, Harrell paroled from San Quentin after serving over 40 years in multiple prisons for his part in a 1977 homicide. During his many days of incarceration, freedom seemed elusive for Harrell and his many trips to the parole board left some wondering if he would ever get out. Since paroling, adjusting to living free for the long-incarcerated Harrell has consisted of good days, bad days, and eventful days.
“If it’s not one thing, it’s 10 of another,” Harrell said in the article. “That’s the thing about life on the street. But my worst day out here is better than my best day in there.”
Several years after beginning his sentence, Harrell starting making art as a means of buying commissary items. His arts endeavors started with leather, wood, and glass. Upon his transfer to SQ in 1992, he learned block printing under the California Arts in Corrections program.
As part of the program, he was introduced to William James Association teacher Katya McCulloch, who offered Harrell an opportunity to further expand his creative abilities and build lasting relationships.
Through persistent efforts in the 2000s, McCulloch and another instructor, Steven Emrick, used the multi-ethnic art program as a bridge to help change the longtime prison dynamic of racial and ethnic segregation and tension.
The collaborative space offered Harrell, who is Black, an opportunity to form multiple relationships despite the distinctive cultural differences. A few of those connections were with attendees from the art class including Ballard, who is White, and Henry Frank, who is of Yurok and Pomo decent.
“In the art room, factors like race, religion and what the men had done to land in prison fell away and we’re just artists in there. And that was it,” Frank said.
Harrell remains busy balancing working security for FedEx, creating a non-profit to provide homeless individuals with access to shower services, and investing in a trucking business. While at SQ, his work with the PIA furniture factory gave him the skills needed for his second job creating furniture out of construction debris.
Unfortunately, his artistic success does not guarantee a future of security. With little time for constructing his art, only twice a week, bills take priority, the article said.
Many people have helped Harrell in creating his artist’s portfolio that has helped earn him accolades. McCulloch, his former art teach at The Q, continues to provided guidance for Harrell and his artistic vision.
A 2020 exhibit called, “Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” featured Harrell and Frank. Now, with the Right of Return fellowship, he is getting welcome support to continue pursuing his artwork.
Harrell’s story is far from over. When asked if he is hopeful for his future, he replied, “Every day is a good day.”
Gary Harrell spent over four decades in prison. He was recently awarded a fellowship for artists who have returned to the community