San Quentin State Prison in California is the oldest prison in the state; To more people on death row than any other state; and has one of the oldest histories of abusive prison living conditions, dating back to 19th century disciplinary techniques which included flogging to more recent violations like “the state’s single largest sanction for workplace safety violations for failing to prevent the spread of COVID-19,” according to the Los Angeles Times.

It also has a gift shop.

“They call it the recreation program, over there in San Quentin,” says Nicola White, the founder of an independent, unaffiliated program, ArtReach: Reaching Out with the Art and Poetry of Death Row. “The whole COVID-19 situation has, however, cut off supplies. Unfortunately, they have stopped all programs, and the i-detainees]haven’t had any visits for almost a year either. White’s initiative began in 2016 as an alternative to the hobby shop (which is only available in IRL) and is capable of serving as a digital gallery for works of art from around 40. men on death row, ranging from jewelry and paintings to sketches and poetry. .

Mexico by Luis Maciel, $ 211.06 at Etsy

ArtReach started in 2016 not on a whim, but on instinct. For years before founding the program, White, who is based in the UK and a talented artist and mudlarker, befriended a death row inmate from San Quentin through a correspondent initiative at an organization called Lifelines. “After about four years, we had a great friendship for writing letters,” she says. “Today we just don’t have that anymore, do we? We don’t write letters to each other. “

Eventually, she organized a visit to San Quentin. “I spent about five hours there with him,” she says, “chatting, discussing everything. Including the artwork he would send me. She learned that he was one of many artists on death row who would trade their own creations and craftsmanship within the prison. “I thought it was just amazing and spontaneously asked if he thought any of the artists would like to do an exhibition.”

Unlike the recreation program, which also hasn’t received any supplies for about a year, White’s own initiative grants inmates and / or their families a larger percentage of their sales revenue than the recreation program, which has a much lower rate, granting them more crafting and commissioner money. “You wouldn’t find me in the gift shop anyway,” says William (Bill) Clark, death row inmate, writer and cartoonist, as he explains to VICE why he prefers to work with White. “She is a wonderful and positive person. Art is also seen and bought by more people [on the ArtReach Etsy store]. ”

Cartoon by Bill Clark, SOLD

Clark has been on death row for years, some of which have been spent in solitary confinement. “I’ve been here since the year you were born,” he practices as we chat over the phone, “Yeah. That’s when I walked in. I went there for a crime I had nothing to do with.

California Governor Gavin Newsom’s executive moratorium in 2019 suspended the death penalty for now. But White believes this is just the start of what we, and not just inmates, need to build a better system of care for each other. “There have certainly been people who have just said, ‘Why? Why are you providing a platform for these people? Why would you want a work of art made by someone who has committed a crime in your home? ‘ She said, “But a lot of people looked at her and saw more than a name and a number, and a person who committed a crime.” They see a heart.

Fall Buck by Michael Combs, $ 43.74 at Etsy

San Quentin was founded in 1852 and has seen everyone from Johnny Cash to Charles Manson walk its halls. In many ways, he’s the poster child of the American prison system in its harshest and most uncomfortable form of self-mythology; a darkly iconic place and symbol for a national prison system linked to racist police and one contempt for mental health. And it’s not that cruelty always infallibly breeds cruelty. But it’s pretty damn close to death row, and certainly tests a person’s will to live. ArtReach is simply asking us: what can healing be like, for everyone?

Michael Combs’ Maze of Hidden Realms, $ 153.11 at Etsy

Since its founding, ArtReach has organized various virtual and in-person exhibitions of inmate work. “The first exhibit was here,” White says, “and it was great to raise awareness and let [the artists’] voices are heard. Remember that the death penalty does not exist in the UK. Anyway, we had our first show in Mill Valley, just down the road from San Quentin a few years ago, and people were really touched. Columbia University has also just presented much of their work. recently in a group called The Digital Abolitionist.

Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration by Nicole R. Fleetwood, $ 39.95 $ 36.75 to Library

“Creating something can give someone a new direction,” White says of the therapeutic nature of the program, “there is a [gratification] and an element of self-esteem that you wouldn’t otherwise find in prison.

“I’m just glad someone likes it over there,” says painter Alphonso Howard, who was sentenced to death in 1992. “I pretty much learned on my own here. I had to do something with this weather. Painting was just one of those things I had to learn to keep moving forward. It’s either that or crash and burn.

Just Music by Alphonso Howard, $ 65.62 at Etsy

About 20 years ago Howard says he was invested in the college program and distraught when it was pulled from under his feet. “They ended up shutting it down after two years,” he tells VICE, “because they ran out of funding. It frustrated and shook me, and I needed to find something else to motivate myself to keep improving.

“Let me try to break it down for you,” said Steve champion, who is one of the death row poets, and works with White through ArtReach. “You have a lot of people here who are artists. I’m a writer and have a coworker that I work with primarily and of course when we craft things we share and get feedback. What was good for me was just having someone there to exchange ideas… I read a lot of politics and economics, and my writing took on a more analytical tone. I didn’t mean to write about myself, but the things that were event. It is only a [a little later] that he became me, trying to tell the story of myself.

Miniature San Quentin Death Row Cell by Christopher Spencer, $ 656.17 at Etsy

We know that works of art therapy, providing a healthy outlet for a troubled heart. Consider Adolf Wölfli (1864-1930), one of the first documented (albeit inadvertently) cases of art therapy. Living with schizophrenia and having committed a number of crimes, Wölfli was placed in a Swiss asylum for most of his life. During this time, he wrote a 25,000-page manuscript, composed of music and painted numerous pieces of furniture and works of art to calm his mind. “Every Monday morning, Wölfli receives a new pencil and two large sheets of unprinted newsprint,” wrote his doctor, Walter Morgenthaler, in his 1921 book, Ein Geisteskranker as Künstler (A psychiatric patient as an artist) . “The pencil is exhausted in two days; then he has to be content with the heels he saved or whatever he can beg of someone else. He often writes with pieces only five to seven millimeters long and even with the broken lead tips, which he deftly manipulates by holding them between his fingernails.

Today, Wölfli’s works can fetch over half a million dollars each at Sotheby’s– usually, next to a description like “a former farm worker under contract engaged in an insane asylum for most of his adult life …” to remind the viewer that this is the peak of the art brut, or art brut. But many believe these labels need to be revisited or even removed. “Of course, art fits in any arena or institution, but some tend to overstate the connection between work that, for the most part, is not influenced by canon, and work that is. “writes Scott Indrisek in Why “Outsider Art” is a problematic but useful label, “They think it helps ‘validate’ art brut, which is, of course, nonsense. In other cases, it’s just a sales technique.

It is a shortcut for artists whose work “[is] not academic or influenced by references to art history, ”says Indrisek, insisting on classifying artists in a language of“ the other ”. Also, it’s 2021, and like food or music, we seem to have graduated with a cultural degree after admiring only ‘formally’ trained artists. Georges Seurat used great pointillism. But San Quentin inmate Keith Loker also:

Original hand-dotted ink by Keith Loker, $ 509.46 at Etsy

“I never knew I was an artist until I was about 30,” says Daniel Landry, another of those death row artists. These days he says he’s thrilled to delve into Impressionist techniques. “I don’t like to rehearse or do a certain style continuously,” he says, “It varies. I know what I don’t like. I am a terrible self-critic. I’ve had pretty positive feedback from it, and the people who buy the art want to know how and why I created it, so that’s pretty cool. Most of the time, I don’t know where it came from. It could be anything.

Serein by Daniel Landry, $ 241.63 at Etsy

Clark says he doesn’t want his designs to be seen as “the art of prison.” “And what I mean by prison art is taking the prison pictures and putting them [on] paper, [or] what do you have, “he explains.” I wanted to do art on political and social commentary. To create a conversation. Its important to me. This is one of the things ArtReach does so skillfully: it creates a space for inmates to talk about prison. Or not. It doesn’t work as a selling point for people to own something from death row, just for the evil novelty, thus fetishizing the trauma. Yes, part of ArtReach’s catharsis is providing inmates with a way to explore feelings related to their crimes or time in prison. But he also understands that while the work of artists can be influenced by trauma, it is not inherently defined by trauma. He is simply asking to be taken seriously.

My Reflection by Tauno Waidla, $ 116.45 at Etsy

Abstract ink drawing by Rodney San Nicolas, $ 342.67 at Etsy

Labrador and a rooster card during a hunt, $ 58.22 at Etsy

Michael Combs’ Empire of Karma, $ 152.84 at Etsy

You can support ArtReach and find out more about the above artists, on the organization’s website website; support the work of artists on Etsy; and follow ArtReach events on Instagram.

Your loyal VICE editors independently selected everything featured in this story. We may receive a small commission if you purchase through the links on our site.

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