If one were to wake up in an animated prison world, it would be the immortalized world drawn by the late Ronnie Good man. He drew almost every aspect of life at San Quentin, just as it was during the time he resided here.
The average citizen in the world outside would never expect to find beauty and grace within one of the world’s most notorious prisons. Yet Goodman captured various areas of San Quentin with incredible vibrancy and a powerful poignancy. His painting of the old prison hospital (below, right), built in 1883, shows its facade as viewed from the fountains of the Garden Chapel. His depiction of the Lower Yard staircase (facing page) is so realistic, even the birds seem to come alive. And his image of a prisoner facing a door slightly ajar (upper right) paints an emotional picture of solitary waiting.
Goodman was supposed to fly to New York for the September 2020 opening of a six-month exhibition featuring nine of his paintings in a multi-artist collection titled Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration. He had finally made it to the world stage. But like so many artists, he didn’t live to see it. He died at the age of 60, in the ragged tent he called home on the streets of San Francisco’s Mission District.
Rutgers University Professor Nicole R. Fleetwood curated the art exhibit. She became interested in Goodman’s art in the early 2000s. They were introduced through the William James Association, a nonprofit sponsor of prison arts programs throughout California. Fleetwood was particularly interested in the paintings Goodman did while serving time at San Quentin prior to his 2010 release.
Goodman always kept a paint brush nearby. He specialized In creating finely detailed depictions of street life and prison time. He was also a social justice advocate who painted scenes of homelessness, shopping carts, jazz players, and crowds of the downtrodden. Goodman donated a lot of his art to William James. He contributed to many of San Quentin’s murals, and was showcased in a documentary called Aggie, about art collector and philanthropist Agnes “Aggie” Gund, featured at the Sundance film festival in 2020.
Although poor, Goodman used his talent to raise money to fight homelessness. In 2014, he ran the San Francisco Marathon and helped raise $10,000 for Hospitality House, a homeless resource center where he refined his art skills. Much of his philanthropic nature, he said, was to pay back his societal misdeeds.
“I was out of control as a younger man, and I am deeply ashamed of the crimes I did,” he said. “My life is now about being a positive influence in life, not a negative one, creating art and showing love for my fellow human beings.”
Besides art, Goodman realized a passion for running during his time at San Quentin. He helped start San Quentin’s 1,000 Mile Running Club with Laura Bowman in 2008. He remained the fastest runner in the club for the next couple of years. Frank Rouna, the current coach of the running club, greatly loved and respected Goodman. He tried to help him through his struggles with drugs, but was unsuccessful. Rouna attended Goodman’s funeral and shared fond memories of him with family and friends.