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Vernell Crittenden remembers the phone call. The man's voice was shaky and it was hard to make out what he was saying. Crittenden had just gone to work in the warden's office after years as a guard at San Quentin State Prison and wasn't inclined to grant a favor to an ex-convict. The caller, who identified himself as the artist who painted the remarkable murals inside the fabled penitentiary's mess halls while an inmate in the 1950s, wanted permission to come and see them and take photos.
"I essentially blew him off, and, to be honest, I've regretted it ever since," recalls Crittenden, the prison's public information officer.
The unexpected request from artist Alfredo Santos nearly 10 years ago could have spelled the end of a mystery that has captivated a handful of art lovers and prison history buffs for decades. The four epic murals inside San Quentin's infamous South Block -- depicting California history from the building of the railroads to the post-World War II industrial boom -- are undoubtedly among the state's best-kept art secrets.
Measuring 12 feet tall and nearly 100 feet long, the imposing oil paintings present a kaleidoscope of people, places, and events that have shaped the nation's most populous state, rendered in a style reminiscent of Works Progress Administration murals of the '30s. "They are marvelous works, and because they're inside the prison they're totally unexpected," says Eduardo Pineda, director of education at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
Yet each in a procession of arts professionals and others allowed into the Big House to view the murals over the years has left with a nagging question: Just who was the artist? Because many of San Quentin's records from the 1950s -- including inmate personnel files -- were thrown away years ago, prison officials knew little about Santos other than his name. Indeed, the California Department of Corrections even now possesses no documentation to show that he was ever on its prisoner rolls.
What has long been known is that the murals were the product of a competition in 1953, open to all inmates, to paint the cafeteria walls. But the astonishing sophistication of the work -- imbued with leftist political imagery extolling working-class virtues at a time when McCarthyism was rampant -- has for years been a source of intrigue to the few art historians and others familiar with the murals.
"Inmates and prison personnel have spent countless hours gazing at those murals for a lot of years, and it does make you wonder about the person responsible for them," says correctional officer Dave Kilmer, who heads an association that oversees the independent San Quentin Prison Museum, located just outside the prison walls.
Some observers assumed, erroneously, that Santos might have been among the unsung apprentices who helped WPA artists paint San Francisco's beloved Coit Tower frescoes in the 1930s. Others speculated that he must be dead. "You look at the magnitude of what's on those walls, and it's hard to accept that a muralist of his caliber, if he were still alive, could just vanish," says Jennifer Golden, an art history instructor at Sonoma State University.
As it turns out, however, the mystery muralist is not only alive, but by his admission, has -- until now -- studiously protected his obscurity in connection with the artwork. "The murals are something I never cared to talk about publicly because I didn't want people to know that I had gone to prison as a young man," says Santos, now 76 and living on Social Security in a modest San Diego apartment crammed with his art.
Santos was 24 years old when he went to prison in 1951 for selling heroin. Four years later, he finished the last of the panoramic San Quentin panels just in time to meet a self-imposed deadline -- his parole date. Upon being released, he worked as a caricaturist at Disneyland for two years, then returned to his hometown of San Diego to open the first of a string of galleries that, over the course of two prosperous decades, led him to Mexico, New York, Florida, and, ultimately, after his health failed, back to his native California. He hasn't seen the murals since leaving San Quentin. Following his unsuccessful bid to visit the prison a decade ago, he concluded that he probably would never see them.
But that's about to change.
Come July 26 Santos will for the first time in half a century walk through the 150-year-old iron gates into San Quentin's main yard and once again make his way to South Block. But this time, he will enter as an invited guest. As this article went to press, he was slated to be the featured speaker later that night at a fund-raiser for the prison museum association at San Rafael's Four Points Sheraton Hotel. He will be the first former inmate in San Quentin history to be presented with a "key to the prison," an honor usually reserved for dignitaries and retiring correctional officers.
The museum group, which consists mostly of prison guards and their families, jumped at the chance to extend the invitation after receiving a letter from one of the artist's friends three months ago. The friend had persuaded Santos to let her make one more try on his behalf to get permission for him to see the murals. Upon receiving the letter, Kilmer, the association president, called the former inmate to tell him that he had been looking for him for years. "It's like finally solving a riddle," he says.