San Quentin State Prison has a reputation for being a prison of last resort, a place where death-row inmates like Scott Peterson (who murdered his pregnant wife and unborn child) and Richard Allen Davis (who kidnapped and killed Polly Klaas) go to await their ultimate judgment. But San Quentin is essentially three prisons, with one area for death-row inmates and separate areas for long-term prisoners deemed less dangerous, classified as "Level I" and "Level II." Through the San Quentin Prison Arts Project, these lower-risk inmates have access to high-end art classes that give them the freedom to work with paints, inks, and other artist tools. And these artful prisoners, along with alumni of the project, are showing their work at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts as part of the center's "Bay Area Now 7" exhibit.
The exhibit proves that, given a chance to be artists, inmates can produce work that's as gilded, inspired, funny, complicated, and nuanced as anything done by artists in the outside world. Consider Scott McKinstry, who's serving a life sentence for second-degree murder and is the lead painter of a nighttime cityscape at YBCA. The untitled art, made of acrylic on plywood, comprises five panels and takes up most of an entire wall, where it exudes the kind of moody coolness you find in Edward Hopper's Nighthawk or Rembrandt's The Night Watch. Light and dark dance together in each memorable panel.
In San Quentin, where he's been incarcerated since 1996, the 44-year-old McKinstry has an inmate number that defines his existence. At YBCA, McKinstry's biographical information — like that of all the San Quentin artists there — is completely minimized: Just McKinstry's name is printed on the wall text, leaving art-goers to judge the art, not the artist.
Another standout work at YBCA is Ronnie Goodman's Man at Work, a linocut that shows a homeless man on Market Street shouldering two giant recycling bags — one with cans, one with bottles. Giant swirls of whiteness erupt behind the man, like a biblical tornado that's pushing him ever closer to his destination. The striking patterns in Man at Work, and its mythical feel, are reminiscent of Picasso's most evocative linocuts, though Man at Work also hints at Goodman's personal life: He is himself homeless.
After being incarcerated for eight years on a burglary conviction, Goodman left San Quentin in 2010. At age 54, he works all day in a Haight Street art studio and sleeps at night under a stretch of Highway 101 that's close to the Mission District. That he's able to do art at such a high level (David Kiehl, curator of prints at New York's Whitney Museum, has Goodman's work "on his radar," museum spokeswoman Amanda Angel says) is testament to Goodman's longtime artistic abilities. Raised in San Francisco, Goodman first began drawing at age 8. In the 10th grade, he dropped out of high school, and decades later found himself at Folsom State Prison and then San Quentin, where the art programs helped him recommit to something he deeply cared about.
"I started learning about being a real artist," Goodman says. "Prison slowed life down enough for me to focus not just on art but myself — as an artist, as a human being. It slowed life down into this small fish bowl of life, and not being distracted by a lot of other things."
"Bay Area Now" is a triennial YBCA event that surveys the work of important Bay Area artists, and this year's version upended its usual curation practices. Instead of handpicking individual artists, YBCA chose a group of noncommercial organizations to curate projects that fit into YBCA's Mission Street galleries. Besides the San Quentin Prison Arts Project, YBCA selected 14 others, including Adobe Books Backroom Gallery; Creativity Explored, which works with artists who have developmental challenges; and the Chinese Cultural Foundation of San Francisco.
For this year's edition of "Bay Area Now," it helps to walk through YBCA's doors with an open mind. It helps, in other words, to be like Carol Newborg, an established visual artist who's been the program manager of the San Quentin Prison Arts Project for two-and-a-half years. Newborg and the other instructors don't know details of the inmates' criminal records when they teach classes at San Quentin. They prefer it that way. Newborg say she's proud of the program's artists, who've exhibited at many other venues but — for the first time — are exhibiting at a major art institution. The YBCA experience is both thrilling and bittersweet — bittersweet because some of the artists wish they had focused on art in the years before committing crimes that landed them in prison. Perhaps art could have kept them out of prison.
"Most of these guys grew up in poverty, so there wasn't a lot of access to arts education and art opportunities," says Newborg, who has worked with prisoners on art for 30 years. "And art really does have the power to reach people and help them heal, and help them discover things of value that they can share with others that they didn't know they had. The studio [at San Quentin] offers this wonderful sanctuary for them. Having work on the outside is great, and it's part of giving back. It's also about seeing the inmates more dimensionally — as people who can change and do good things, too."
Located in Marin County, just a short ride from the Golden Gate Bridge, San Quentin has its own murals created by inmates. But only people who get inside San Quentin's walls see that work firsthand. "Bay Area Now 7" offers a rare chance to look at the inner lives of San Quentin's prisoners. Their interior thoughts often emerge on canvases and wood blocks and other artistic surfaces. At YBCA, you see their dreams on display, along with their feelings about a world that can be cruel and absurd — and also, at times, rewarding.
Stephen Wirtz Gallery, a mainstay in downtown San Francisco for 35 years, is closing its doors this month, though not before hosting a going-away gathering at its 49 Geary St. space on Thursday, Aug. 7, 6-8 p.m. The closing of another prominent S.F. gallery is never welcome. This is a chance to offer Stephen and Connie Wirtz a big "thanks" for their years of distinctive gallery offerings.