Unchain my art

"The Prison Project" shines a light on works by artists touched by incarceration
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Bone Shaker by Larry Machado

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REVIEW The United States has the highest incarceration rate of any nation in the world, with more than 1.8 million people currently behind bars. But perhaps more disturbing is the fact that the largest state on the so-called left coast is the most prison-happy: California spends the most money in the nation on corrections while ranking 43rd in funding education.

This according to "Golden Rules: A Guide to the California Prison System," a booklet designed by Kelly Beile and Emily Wright, which presents startling statistics on the industry and economics behind this state's prison system as part of "The Prison Project," Intersection for the Arts's continuing multidisciplinary exploration into California's criminal justice system. The book was produced in conjunction with an exhibition of work by an array of artists directly affected by the correctional facilities in our state.

With so little money being put into education for California's unoffending citizens, it's not surprising that next to nothing is spent on rehabilitation programs for prisoners. Thankfully, through private funding and grants, programs such as San Quentin's Arts in Corrections and the William James Foundation's Prison Arts Project exist to offer a creative outlet to inmates.

Arts in Corrections student Ronnie Goodman uses acrylic on canvas board to record daily life as a prisoner at San Quentin. In Under the Bullet Holes Shat (2007), Goodman captures the undifferentiated backs of inmates exiting the prison yard as beams of light stream through bullet holes in the tented tarp roof. One figure — perhaps the artist — hangs back from the crowd, a solitary man without a face.

The solitary man is a recurring subject in the show. In the work of Robert Stansbury, who died on San Quentin's death row in 1991, the male subject appears alone with nature, walking on a beach or cooking his meat over a campfire. Stansbury was entirely self-taught, since programs such as Arts-in-Corrections are only available to "mainline" prisoners, not those on death row.

Another self-taught artist, on San Quentin's Death Row since 1983, William Noguera recreates images from his dreams and memories in painstaking detail with ink on paper. Photo-realistic renderings of a couple embracing, a billowing curtain, a cross, a shadow, and a cityscape are overlapped and collaged together, creating networks of narratives. Each piece takes Noguera approximately 100 hours to complete, and the artist mixes his own blood into the ink with the belief that he might free a bit of himself from his four-by-10-foot cell with every composition.

Artist Mabel Negrete is not incarcerated, but her brother is, and their collaborative installation You and Me describes the relationship between inmates and their loved ones on the outside. Negrete compares a day in her own life, as she lives in freedom, and a day in the life of her brother, as he lives inside prison walls. On the wall of the gallery, Negrete transcribes a letter from her brother — in distraught hatch marks — and, next to it, her own letter in carefree cursive. On the floor, Negrete renders with masking tape the actual space of her brother's shared cell, with two beds, a desk, and a toilet/sink, next to the equivalent space of her apartment bathroom.

"The Prison Project" also includes works by at-risk boys and girls through preventive youth education programs such as the Imagine Bus Project and City Studio.

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