Hidden Treasure

Half a century ago, ex-heroin dealer Alfredo Santos created an epic work of art inside San Quentin. Now, he's coming back to be honored for it.

Perched on San Francisco Bay 20 miles north of the city, San Quentin from a distance resembles a sprawling tourist resort with its red tiled roofs and sweeping views of the waterfront and Marin hills. But on the inside, it is a cold and austere place, little changed from when Santos arrived there in the 1950s. South Block, from which one enters the mess halls, was built as the largest cellblock in the world, designed to hold 2,000 prisoners in two-man cells. It is the quintessential Big House as depicted in old Hollywood movies, a living, breathing artifact much like Alcatraz. But unlike the island prison, San Quentin is still populated by inmates rather than tourists.

All of which makes Santos' murals even more startling. His work occupies both sides of two walls that divide what was once a cavernous South Dining Hall into three spaces. (A fourth, unadorned dining hall, on the opposite side of the kitchen from those bearing the murals, has been the site of some of the prison's memorable celebrity performances, including a legendary 1969 concert by singer Johnny Cash and, more recently, a show by rock band Metallica.)

The murals are as diverse as California itself, stuffed with images as disparate as Albert Einstein and legendary Barbary Coast dancer Diamond Lil. Santos pays homage to every era of the state's development, from the arrival of prairie schooners and gold miners to the coming of hydroelectric power and the rise of the aerospace and motion picture industries. Here and there the works contain personal commentary, such as a World War II induction scene in which a brawny would-be soldier (whose face is that of a real-life prison guard during Santos' stay who was said to be particularly nasty) wimps out in tears as a nurse sticks a needle in his arm.

Optical Illusion: A giant World War II-era 
aircraft -- like a San Francisco cable car on 
an opposite wall -- "moves" as the observer 
walks from one end of the room to another.
Paolo Vescia
Optical Illusion: A giant World War II-era aircraft -- like a San Francisco cable car on an opposite wall -- "moves" as the observer walks from one end of the room to another.
Santos, 76, and pet cockatoo Max, at his 
San Diego apartment and (inset) in his 
Guadalajara studio in 1961.
Joe Klein
Santos, 76, and pet cockatoo Max, at his San Diego apartment and (inset) in his Guadalajara studio in 1961.

There are also personal touches, including a storefront scene featuring the Santos Café and Tony's Tamales, a reference to the restaurant and tortilla factory operated by the artist's uncle in San Diego. On one panel, Santos painted a man gazing out from a building with binoculars; careful observers will notice that his target is a woman undressing in a high-rise window some distance away along the wall. The works also contain several optical illusions, including a San Francisco cable car that "turns" before viewers' eyes as they walk from one end of the mess hall to the other.

Even now, the murals elicit astonishment from inmates and the relatively few outsiders who've seen them. "They're incredibly sophisticated works," says Golden, the Sonoma State instructor. "To think that they were executed by an inmate in his 20s with no real formal training almost defies imagination."

To others, it's equally baffling how Santos managed to get his unmistakably leftist political imagery (i.e., his celebration of organized labor juxtaposed against symbols of corrupt government) past prison authorities during the conservative '50s. Dick Nelson, a retired assistant warden and a key figure in quelling the bloody 1971 San Quentin revolt involving revolutionary George Jackson, suggests a possible answer. "If you look at the total picture, at all the elements he's included in the murals, from the contributions of various ethnic groups to the movie industry, agriculture, the wartime efforts, it's quite possible to look past any so-called political leanings and just view it as a representation of California history, which is what I do," he says.

If prison authorities did see political overtones in Santos' work, "someone made a smart decision to allow him free expression," says Marin County historian Lionel Ashcroft, the author of a book about San Quentin. "My hunch is that if the powers that be were troubled by the political symbolism, assuming they recognized it, they probably concluded it didn't matter because the only people who were going to see it were inmates."

The artist insists he wasn't trying to put anything over on his keepers. "I wasn't overtly trying to be political with the murals. I was just expressing what I felt," he says. But then he adds, "At heart I've always been sort of a closet socialist."

The walls on which the murals were painted are the product of a fortuitous redesign of the cafeteria brought about by legendary warden Clinton Duffy, who outlawed San Quentin's infamous dungeon and instituted other reforms aimed at treating inmates more humanely during the 1940s. Duffy decided that the chow hall was too big and impersonal and ordered it cut down. He probably had no idea that he was laying the groundwork for what is arguably the state's most unusual art gallery.

In 1953, someone in the administration of Warden Harley Teets, Duffy's strict disciplinarian successor, came up with the idea of holding a contest among inmates to paint the walls. There were no announced criteria. According to the prison newspaper, any inmate who was interested could submit a sketch. Santos was an almost accidental applicant.

He had spent his first two years at San Quentin in privileged conditions. Assigned to the prison hospital because of a leg injury he sustained shortly before his incarceration, Santos drew the attention of the prison physician, Dr. Leo Stanley (who became known for, among other things, his controversial medical experiments involving inmates). Stanley arranged for Santos to remain in the convalescent section long after his leg had healed. Under the influential doctor's protection, Santos says, he set up a studio occupying three cells, from which he painted caricatures of prison personnel and fellow inmates.

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