By Tommy Winfrey
Don “Coach” DeNevi, 76, has been supervising the recreation department at San Quentin since December of 2001, and although he says he loves his job, he can’t live without his art.
“Whenever I go home each day after working with my inmates on crisis after crisis, I paint. I must paint!” exclaimed DeNevi.
Growing up on the south side of Stockton during the 1940s and ’50s, he says he came from a racially diverse group where, “all we cared about is if you could play ball.” But what DeNevi really cared about personally was history.
He took his love of history to College of the Pacific, where he majored in history and minored in art.
At that time, he said he really wasn’t interested in the application of art, only the history of art. In his last semester before he was to receive his ’bachelors degree, he said, he found himself short one art class from graduating.
At the insistence of a school administrator and a desire to graduate, DeNevi said he made his way to the art department and ended up in the only class left open at the time – a watercolor course. “That course changed my life. I’ve been painting ever since,” said DeNevi.
He often paints the landscapes that have dominated his life. He grew up in the Central Valley of California and worked in the prisons in the Salinas Valley before coming to work at San Quentin.“My dad always wanted a grape vineyard; it has something to do with my Italian American heritage,” said DeNevi.
The landscapes DeNevi chooses to paintt come from his imagination, he said. “In my head I have a vision – I’m going to have this kind of landscape, this type of sky, etc., but they never turn out how I imagined.”
He said this leaves him totally unsatisfied with his paintings. “If you’re ever, ever satisfied with what you’ve done, what you’ve achieved, you’re no artist – like my hero Gully Jimson in Joyce Carey’s ‘The Horse’s Mouth’ said, ‘The act of serious, genuine creativity, imagination, indeed the act bordering on genius because no one has ever done what you’ve just got through doing means that you’ve been rolled down a hill in a barrel of broken glass.”’
DeNevi said the act of creation keeps him preoccupied and uncomfortable. “That is the way it should be, though, just like a woman knows the physical pain of childbirth, an artist feels the psychological pain of creation.”
DeNevi uses water-soluble paint in his own unique way; he said he starts by applying piles of paint to 300 pounds of watercolor paper, then washing 99 percent of the paint away in his kitchen sink. The finished paintings take him between four and six weeks to complete.
Although DeNevi acknowledges art will always be part of his life, he said his creativity often pushes him in different directions. He said he has been spending a lot of time writing movie treatments.
Another project he said he will start soon is writing the history of San Quentin. “I expect that this project will take up the next 10 years of my life.”
Creating may be a painful process for DeNevi, but he has found pleasure in the time he spends at San Quentin. “I have been teaching, counseling, an administrator at all levels of education, from Adult Basic Education 1 at both Soledad and Salinas Valley State Prisons to grad students in the Ph.D. programs at U.C. Berkeley and U.C. Santa Cruz for 56 years… [but I] never found any position more personally rewarding than serving as coach at San Quentin.”
DeNevi’s art can be purchased at Stroud and Stroud Gallery in Pacific Grove, which carries six at a time. Prices for his art range between $500 and $800.
By Tommy Winfrey