The art of Ronald “Gabe” Gabriel is like a time capsule that collects souvenirs and relics; he shows us the wrinkles as we age. Each piece has its own identity, like a fingerprint, with scenes that unwrap.
The 71-year-old San Quentin resident proudly displays his artwork all over the walls and ceiling of his West Block cell. Posters of Harley Davidsons are in tribute to his love for motorcycles.
As a person’s eye wanders around one of Gabriel’s canvases there are analogies that bring multiple scenes alive as if it were a minefield, not knowing when “scenic bombs” will go off. Many are dismayed at his creations.
As an artist, he is dedicated to showing the world the realities of the prison setting—realities no one would want to live with.
Each piece shows the struggles of prison life. He says his drawings are the reality of an incarcerated population that has developed its own “social Darwinism” throughout decades of mass incarceration.
“Prison isn’t prison anymore. The culture, the level of respect, has evaporated into the mist of darkness,” said Gabriel. “A warehouse it has become.”
He added, “The reason why I am doing this kind of art is because the style of artwork will be gone when my generation of convicts die out. A man can only survive the insanity of a prison.”
Gabriel said he has survived the past four decades of incarceration by staying busy and “reinventing day-to-day life within prison walls.”
One of his pieces, “The New Guardian,” is a reflection on how the prison system has changed. It illustrates the hate, violence, pain, ugliness, injustice and loneliness that exist as Covid-19 quarantines continue to rob the incarcerated of their sanity.
Years ago, when prisons were primarily staffed by men, the guards enforced a culture of aggressiveness and violence. Gabriel says in today’s prison setting, he has noticed how female guards have worked to treat incarcerated people with greater humanity.
“All these female guards can relate to our pain as mothers and sisters who they themselves have to work inside a prison,” said Gabriel.
To honor the life of West Block’s Sergeant Polanco, Gabriel created a piece called “The Lie.” Polanco died from COVID-19.
“It’s based on respect from both sides, from staff and convicts alike,” he said.