Incarcerated artists under the tutelage of the William James’ Arts & Correction program produced “museum- quality” paintings that were displayed at the Bartolini Gallery in San Rafael from Jan. 16-March 28.
“It’s just truly museum quality in so many ways,” said Libby Garrison, who cu- rated the exhibit. “They [the artists who are incarcerated] maybe have never been to a museum or never studied art. They are relying on the expertise and the teachings of these incredible teaching artists.”
At the exhibition’s open- ing celebration on January 16, a crowd braved pouring rain and power outages to view what many hailed as professional-quality works from budding incarcerated artists. The exhibit also featured the work of formerly incarcerated artist and Arts & Corrections instructors, plus photos taken at San Quentin by photographer Peter Merts.
The paintings of Lamavis Comundoniwilla, one of the incarcerated artists, greeted the guests as they entered the museum.
“His work to me was immediately striking,” said Garrison, who is Director of Marketing and Communications for the Marin County Department of Cultural Services. “You can almost feel the painstaking time it took to paint each point, each dot, each color on the artworks.”
Comundoniwilla claims to have created a new style called “fusion.” His colorful art combines cubism, pointillism, impressionism and Viennese Secession. He uses bright colors to paint vivid African themes. Some attendees characterized his work as stippling or pointillism, similar to impressionists.
“He’s combining many things into his own personal style,” said Arts & Corrections instructor Carol Newborg. “He’s got a beautiful eye for texture and color.”
A local gallery owner also complimented Comundoniwilla’s paintings.
“What I also love is the way that he’s just express- ing himself and his culture through these pieces in such a beautiful way,” said Donna Seager of Seager- Gray Gallery in Mill Valley. “This is labor intensive. His aesthetic sensibilities are sophisticated.”
The Bartolini Gallery exhibit was the 50-year-old Comundoniwilla’s chance to debut his pieces. He just started painting last year.
His career as an artist started back in 1998 while in administrative segregation where he began draw- ing, he said.
In 2018, he joined the William James program and through books the program provided, the Compton, Ca. native studied painters like Gustav Klimt and Georges Seurat. From these sources of inspiration, he named his style “fusion.”
“Studying art history books and various artists here at Arts and Corrections taught me a lot,” Comundoniwilla said. “The other artists in this room showed me more than I could have learned from books.”
Comundoniwilla’s classmate Stanley Bey submitted two paintings combining stippling and pointillism, which he considers to be in the same fusion style.
Bey began drawing Spiderman from Marvel com- ics when he was 13 years old. Now 64, he expanded his work with the help of Arts & Corrections instructors like Ned Axthlem, Bey said.
Bruce Fowler, also incarcerated at San Quentin, acts as a teacher’s assistant for the Williams James pro- gram. He had two pieces displayed at the gallery.
“Getting our stuff out to where the public can see it gives you a sense of participation in society instead of always feeling like you’re locked in a box,” Fowler said. “It’s a huge honor to be invited to something like that. It give you a sense of hope for the future.”
“This program has given me a way to give back,” Fowler said. “It’s a way we get to give a lot of donations. Meanwhile, Merts’ photos gave gallery attendees a glimpse of the artists at work inside the prison.
“My job is to bring the message about who inmates are because people can connect through their work; but in this show, the photos by Merts brought people back inside,” Newborg said. “It’s was like an exchange between inside and outside.”
“This show was one of our best ones ever,” Newborg said. “It has amazing individual art and the way it’s arranged tells a story. The works feed off each other.”
The following artists also had painting on display:
Anthony Vazquez-Ramirez, Daniel Sherman, Ben Chandler, Jeffrey Isom, Gerald Morgan, Orlando Smith, Eduardo Flores, Eric Phillips, Mike Williams, Gary Harrell, Oran Hutson, Michael Hedges, James Duff, Sam Marquez, Frederick Tinsley, Khalifah Christensen, Scott McKinstry, Lumumba Edwards, Isiah Daniels, Justus Evans, Dennis Crookes, Henry Frank, Ned Axthelm, The Artist Hines, Patrick Maloney, Katya McCulloch, Amy M. Ho, Carol Newborg, Joe Krauter, Paul Stauffer, Carlos Moreno, John Robb, Nicola Bucci and Peter Bergne.
Origami pieces were contributed by: Chanthon Bun, Son Nguyen, Ekaterina Lukasheva, Hieu “Rocky” Nguyen, Danny Ho, Alvin Timball, David Brill, Sok Song, Dontay Turner, Jun Hamamoto, Danny Thongsy, Viviane Berty, Si Dang, Jay Gonzalez, Moua Vue, Omid Mokri, Kenji Jinbo, Ricky Lemon, Franciso Oritz, Kunihiko Kasahara, David Le, B. Singh, Christopher Smith, Charlie Thao, Tith Ton and Thanh Tran.