Island Art: Inside Out

Island Art: Inside Out

Michael Singman-Aste

Photos by Michael Singman-Aste.

A heron rises above the water in “Taking Off,” a serene watercolor painted by a man who murdered a woman in her Bakersfield home after sexually assaulting her. The image is being used to advertise “Inside Out,” which opened at REDUX Studios & Gallery on February 14, featuring artwork from some of the more than 700 men on San Quentin’s death row. Is his crime irrelevant, or entirely the point? The exhibit is a joint venture of Saint Vincent de Paul, which operates REDUX, and St. John Bosco Prison Ministry at Holy Spirit church in Fremont.

Reaction to the exhibit by the public has been “generally positive,” according to Chris Rummell, manager of REDUX. A frequent comment, Rummell said, is that visitors “were surprised about how ordinary the paintings were.

"(I)t was not what they expected in the sense that they were pretty straightforward," Rummell said. "That they were landscape scenes and not, maybe what they would have expected, which was some of the intention for producing the exhibit in the first place.”

There is some quite capable work, especially oil landscapes by a man named John Connor, but he is something of a ringer: After a search of the California Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation showed no such person among the ranks of its prisoners, Kathy Weber of the prison ministry explained, “he is the only man in the show who is probably not from death row.” (Apparently his work was donated to the ministry by another inmate.) Most show less training, and appear to be first attempts at painting, perhaps in an art class.

Americana was a popular theme among the artists. There is a painting of an eagle that is not half bad, done by a man who strangled a 14-year old girl and attempted to beat her 15-year old friend to death, and frolicking lion cubs and bucolic Native Americans with their teepees by a man who raped and murdered a nine-year old girl he kidnapped on her way home from school.

There are some nice ink stippling botanicals. “Do you want a specific scene done for yourself or as a gift to someone?” asks the artist, who shot and killed two people and wounded two others in a robbery. One inmate crochets children’s hats, and they look cozy, if one overlooks the grisly irony that he was sentenced to death for shooting a four-year-old boy in the head while robbing his father’s jewelry store in Oakland. Is his craft an attempt to come to grips with what he has done?

The inmates’ crimes are not listed at the venue, and their names do not even appear on the walls, but it is easy enough to connect the dots using the artist statements and portfolios on hand, combined with a quick Google search. And it is not irrelevant. Arguably the vast majority of pieces would never be considered for exhibition except for the fact that their creators are condemned murderers and rapists.

Among the 700+ inmates there are almost certainly some who are innocent. In the case of one of the exhibiting artists, two justices dissented in the decision to uphold his conviction “on the grounds that prosecutors may have improperly excused prospective black jurors.” Another man’s “artist statement” is devoted to proclaiming his innocence and asks for financial support so he can pursue a law degree, “which will aid in expediting my exoneration,” he wrote.

“I believe that some are innocent,” Weber said via e-mail. And even among the guilty, “please keep in mind that these men have felt remorse for what they have done and now live changed lives. They are not who they use to be,” she wrote.

Rummell said his intention was to “add some dimension of what our collective expectation of who folks on death row are. That they are human. A lot of these folks have committed crimes 20 years ago, maybe when they were different people.

"They have the capacity for change," Rummell said. "Particularly the folks who have come through this were associated with the prison ministries. So it’s a lot of folks who have come to religion at that point in their life.”

Religion is a common theme in the exhibit. One artist, who 15 years ago hired a killer to shoot his wife who was eight months pregnant, painted a crucifixion scene. He wrote in his statement, “I am both people in the painting on each side of Christ ... On the right is the assassin, who denied Christ and died. On the left is the thief, who only when confronting his own death while witnessing the majesty of God’s sacrifice, realizes his sins and accepts Jesus. The whole painting is an analogy of my struggle and contradiction.”

“Certainly this ties together with some of our social mission,” Rummell said. Saint Vincent de Paul provides “service to those who are needy and suffering ... making no distinction in those served because, in them, Vincentians see the face of Christ,” according to their website.

“I think some of the men in the population here are conceivably our clients that we’re serving in downtown Oakland at some point in their lives. And connecting to that spectrum of folks who are engaged or involved with the criminal justice system, we're helping to support those folks,” Rummell said.

In standing by its principles in the face of a potentially unpopular exhibit, REDUX demonstrates that it is not afraid of controversy. Although it was not intended to be provocative, according to Rummell, as a side effect REDUX may gain additional credibility as an art gallery similar to K Gallery at Rhythmix Cultural Works, whose “St. Stupid’s Art Show” exhibit in 2011 included pieces some found to be sacrilegious; and Autobody Fine Art, where work consistently pushed boundaries and buttons.

“Inside Out” will certainly create dialogue among visitors — and those who pass judgment without viewing it firsthand — about capital punishment, compassion and forgiveness, victim and prisoner rights, and good and evil. But as one visitor commented, it is difficult to “celebrate the art.” It is not an exhibit to be enjoyed, but it is an exhibit worth visiting.

“Inside Out” is on display through April 6. Ninety percent of the proceeds from the exhibit go to the prison ministry for art materials and “commissary funds” for the inmates, with some of those proceeds donated to assist other prisoners. REDUX is located at 2315 Lincoln Avenue. They are open from 11 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Phone: 865-1109. Website: http://www.SVdP-Alameda.org/redux.php.

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