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.

Yet despite Santos' popularity and penchant for regaling listeners with his experiences in Mexico and elsewhere, the early chapters of his life remained cordoned off to all but a few confidants. Even Fishkin, who was privy to the fact that Santos had been in prison, never knew why he was sent there. "There were certain things that even close friends didn't ask about, and San Quentin was one of them," recalls Susan MacAuley, a professional photographer in Virginia who was a Fleischmanns regular. She had no knowledge of the murals until a year ago, when Summers, a close friend, enlisted her help in a vain attempt to find photographs of the prison art.


The murals attract an enthusiastic -- if captive -- audience at San Quentin. "You think about inmates who eat in the same place every day for years and it gives them something stimulating to think about," says Crittenden, the prison spokesman. "They appreciate it."

In some respects, however, the penitentiary is a less than ideal art venue. Steam rising from hot carts used to serve food in the mess halls has taken a toll on the murals. They've undergone two restorations. The first, in the late 1960s, proved to be hit or miss. The protective coating applied to the murals caused the original reddish oil to turn brown, prompting successive generations of inmates exposed to the paintings to conclude -- wrongly -- that the artist may have used brown shoe polish.

San Quentin's chow halls are largely 
unchanged from when Alfredo Santos 
completed his remarkable murals in 1955.
Paolo Vescia
San Quentin's chow halls are largely unchanged from when Alfredo Santos completed his remarkable murals in 1955.
Despite the murals' leftist political imagery, 
Santos insists, "I wasn't overtly trying to be 
political."
Paolo Vescia
Despite the murals' leftist political imagery, Santos insists, "I wasn't overtly trying to be political."

During a restoration effort in the early '90s, the cafeteria's skylights were removed in an effort to prevent fading. "The murals were pretty dilapidated," recalls Aida de Arteaga, a prison teacher who oversaw that effort. Although inmates generally have refrained from placing graffiti on the murals, vandalism has become more of a problem in the decade since San Quentin was reduced from a maximum-security to a multilevel-security facility, with a younger, more transient inmate population.

"The old-timers were more respectful," she says. "Probably because they knew they would be looking at the murals for the rest of their lives."

Had it not been for Kim Brandon, 43, Santos would have probably never gotten another glimpse of his long-ago artwork.

A friend of Santos who used to date one of his sons, Brandon was having her hair done late last year when her San Diego hairdresser told her about a trip he had taken to the Bay Area that included a chance visit to San Quentin. "He was gushing about these fabulous murals, and I couldn't resist telling him, "I know who painted those,'" she says. The episode prompted her to persuade Santos to let her contact prison authorities on his behalf.

She plans to accompany him to the prison reunion. "Are you kidding? I wouldn't miss this for the world."

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