Artists behind the walls of San Quentin have blurred the boundaries of community. Artwork from the men who take part in the art classes sponsored by the William James Association in San Quentin will make its way into a prominent San Francisco arts center beginning July 18.
The Yerba Buena Center for the Arts is holding its triennial art exhibit titled Bay Area Now 7. In 1997, YBCA began to hold art exhibits that showcase local artists’ work, which are the most exciting artistic voices in the Bay Area, according to YBCA.
Bay Area Now is an art exhibit that “marks a moment in the life of the institution and regional art scenes through the work of the participating artists who are seen as representative of the spirit of that particular time,” according to a Bay Area Now 7 press release.
“This is an incredible opportunity for the art of prisoners to reach an art-oriented public,” commented Carol Newborg, program director for the San Quentin Prison Arts Project.
Newborg and fellow San Quentin art instructor Amy Ho had to submit a proposal of San Quentin artists’ work to a selection committee that viewed 50 proposals, according to the YBCA press release. The competition was narrowed down to 15 partner organizations that will “create a dynamic art fair environment by curating site-specific projects throughout our galleries and campus,” according to YBCA.
“The incredible range and scope of the proposals selected reflects the larger diversity and strength of the Bay Area arts community,” said Ceci Moss, assistant curator of visual arts at YBCA.
The diversity of the artwork that will be featured in Bay Area Now 7 reflects the overwhelming response by the art community in the Bay Area to be a part of this celebrated art exhibit. The San Quentin Prison Arts Project will display the artwork of 30 artists that includes paintings, block prints, silk screens and five panels of a 16-panel mural from San Quentin.
The mural is an imaginary cityscape that will eventually make its way into the North Dining Hall inside San Quentin. Six prisoners worked on the mural, which is painted on wooden panels.
“Working on a painting this size with more experienced artists is a great learning opportunity. I still make mistakes but others – especially our lead-man (Scotty McKinstry) are always there to assist and teach. This is a great exercise in cooperation and teamwork,” says Christopher Christensen, a member of the mural crew.
Also included in the exhibit will be music, dance and theater, films and spoken word performances, according to YBCA.
“YBCA gave us a really prominent space in the anteroom to display approximately 50 pieces of work,” said Newborg. She has helped to curate art shows for the San Quentin Prison Arts Project in the past. People leave these art shows with a view that is opposite to the one they walked in with, she commented. “People walk in with one perception of what a prisoner is and leave with a totally opposite view a lot of the time. It’s just amazing.”
The exhibit will not only feature the artwork of current inmates, but also prints from former San Quentin residents Felix Lucero, Rölf Kissmann, Henry Frank, Ronnie Goodman and Brendan Murdoch.
On Sept. 18, from 4 to 8 p.m., former San Quentin prisoners will read the writings of the still-incarcerated creative writing group, Brothers in Pen. The group is another outlet of the art programs at San Quentin sponsored by the William James Association.
“This is a great opportunity for me and my art to be displayed in such a prominent atmosphere,” said Isiah “MWasi” Daniels. “I give thanks to the William James Association and YBCA for allowing such an opportunity. I am an example of what the art program can accomplish. I gained confidence in my abilities as an artist, and it helped me unite with men and women I never would have, if it were not for the program.”
The exhibit includes Daniels’ piece Generation, which is an example of pointillism. It is done with ink on paper, and took Daniels 110 hours to complete.
A sense of community is a feeling many of the artists talk about when commenting on the YBCA exhibit. “It’s very helpful to be a part of a community project,” says Noah Wright, whose acrylic on canvas painting Gone Fishing with Grandpa will be part of the exhibit.
Recognizing the artists inside the walls has been beneficial in community building. However, an even more important aspect of the art programs is what actually takes place in the San Quentin Prison Arts Project itself.
“This has been a godsend for me. There is a spirit of serenity in (the program) most of the time, and I appreciate being around kindred spirits,” says artist David Johnson. His mixed medium acrylic and watercolor on canvas painting series titled The Knowledge of Good and Evil will be on display.
“Art is my self-help group, my meditation, my Zen, my escape from reality,” says James Norton, who is part of the mural crew and has a pencil on paper drawing titled The Musketeer in the exhibit.
Frederick Tinsley, who has two acrylic on canvas paintings in the show, put it simply, “I have fun doing this stuff.”
No matter how much fun the artist may have creating, their work is serious and they appreciate what the program is doing to help them. “Art has saved my life,” says Dennis Crookes, an artist who is displaying his oil on canvas, Solace.
It is a salvation that the public will be able to witness firsthand in the YBCA exhibit Bay Area Now 7, running from July 18 through Oct. 12.
YBCA is located at 701 Mission St., San Francisco, Ca 94103, and may be contacted at www.ybca.org.