William “Bill” Clark has written poetry, plays, children’s books, and is a political cartoonist. He is a self-taught and accomplished artist, and one of 745 inmates on death row at San Quentin State Prison, California.
His cell doubles as his art studio. “They give us a drawing board, and what I usually do —this is going to sound crazy— is I sit on the toilet. I take my blanket, fold it to make a cushion, I put my board against the bedframe and I draw while sitting on the toilet. That’s how I set up my space. That’s my studio, so to speak.”
Clark has no other options. As a death row inmate, he is not allowed to take any of his possessions outside of his cell. “We can’t take our materials out of our cell, we have to do it inside our cell,” he says. Patted down and searched whenever inmates leave and come back into their cell, their cell is the only place they are allowed to put pen —or paintbrush— to paper.
They get their art supplies from the hobby store, where they can put in an order to the hobby manager. “Let’s say I want to buy drawing paper, ink pens and coloured pencils. I put in the order, give it to the hobby manager who processes it, and they remove the money from my trust account, like a bank account, to pay for the order. So we need people in our lives to send us money so that we can buy art supplies,” Clark explains.
Those who cannot afford art supplies have had to be resourceful. Robert Dunson, convicted in 2007, uses the dye of M&M’s sweets, coffee and tea for colour, and a feather to paint.
So is the life of the San Quentin artists.
Once you get locked up in San Quentin’s condemned row, there is no way out. Yet, from San Quentin to London, some of the men have made it out, so to speak, onto the walls of a gallery, with the help of Nicola White, an artist who has been collecting their art for the last few years.
It all started in a gym changing room, where a woman told White about the charity she was involved in, a charity which puts people in contact with death row inmates in the US. White decided to give it a go and was allocated a penfriend incarcerated in San Quentin, who regularly sent White handmade cards and works of art. “When I went to visit about two years ago, I asked him if he thought any of his inmate friends might like to do an exhibition,” White explains. “I started receiving a lot of artwork, so eventually I had to actually do what I had suggested and have the first exhibition.”
This culminated in “Art Reach” (2015), White’s first death row art exhibition. Since then, White has set up a website to showcase their work, and, following the success of the first show, White held a second exhibition, “The Art of Transformation: Redemption versus Death,” at the Deptford Cinema in South London.
Through White’s work, the inmates at San Quentin have been able to break beyond the four walls of their cells. “There are a lot of guys in here who draw, paint, crochet and do all kinds of artistic things, but there’s no outlet for it, no one to promote our art,” Clark explains.
Promotion and recognition are the main reasons why White started collecting and showing their art. “Most of their work ends up in their attorney’s office or gets sent home to families, so they don’t get the chance to share their work,” she explains. “For me, as an artist, I think it’s important to be able to share your work and gain that confidence and self-esteem.”
Sally Taylor, chief executive of the Koestler Trust, a British charity that helps offenders express themselves creatively, agrees. “Showing their work gives them a connection with the outside world, not just inside the four walls of the prison establishment,” she explains. “This matters a lot, it plays into their self-esteem and their self-confidence, their ability to feel good about themselves.”
For the men in San Quentin, art has become much more than a hobby, it has become their life’s purpose. Art has given them a sense of identity and has allowed them to rise above the label of “prisoner” or “death row inmate.” It has become a way of coping with their predicament, and find solace in a dark place. Art soothes Clark, he explains. “It’s a welcome distraction from the monotony and the craziness of this place,” he says.
Clark describes death row as “demoralising, lonely and boring,” a place greatly overcrowded, with many who “should not even be here:” “There are definitely innocent people in here. Most people here are guilty, but there definitely are innocent people,” he says.
A 2014 report by the National Academy of Science revealed that 4.1 per cent of those sentenced to death in the United States are innocent. In the last 40 years, 157 condemned men have been exonerated with evidence of their innocence. Between 2000 and 2011, the average was five exonerations per year.
As of 2013, capital punishment remains legal in 31 of 50 states. Since it was reinstated in 1977 after four years of suspension, almost 1,500 men have been put to death.
Just this April, the state of Arkansas had plans to execute several of its inmates at an unprecedented rate: eight men in 11 days —two every four nights. The reason? Expiring drugs.
The courts intervened and blocked some of the planned executions, but were not able to block them all. Ledell Lee was the first to die on Arkansas’ death row in 11 years. If other executions had not been blocked, the state of Arkansas would have killed more men in 11 days than the whole of the United States since the start of 2017 —seven men have been executed to this day— and almost half as many as last year’s total number: 20 executions.
Close to 3,000 inmates are currently on death row, 745 of which are held at San Quentin. There, the last man to have been executed was Stanley “Tookie” Williams, killed on December 13, 2005, after 24 years on death row.
Williams was the founder of the world’s deadliest gang, the Los Angeles Crips. Charged for the murder of four people, Williams was sentenced to death in 1979. During his years in prison, he became an anti-violence advocate and was nominated four times for a Nobel Peace Prize for his anti-gang initiatives. His story, and the stories of the men awaiting death in San Quentin, inspired the name of White’s latest death row art exhibition. “The Art of Transformation: Redemption versus Death,” White explains, points the finger at a failure in the US justice system which gives general population inmates the right to take part in rehabilitation programmes such as art therapy, but does not offer any such programmes to death row inmates, who are not seen as needing redemption, for they will never re-enter society.
“The idea is who decides who can be redeemed and who can’t? I suppose that’s a question I want people to think about. Why can’t they be redeemed? All these men are denied redemption because they have been sentenced to death,” says White. “Tookie was a thug, but he and many others currently on death row have gone through personal voyages of transformation, akin to redemption.”
The Koestler Trust does not use art for rehabilitation purposes per se, but strongly believes that having a creative outlet helps inmates cope with their sentences by occupying their minds. As Taylor explains: “It improves your self-confidence, your self-esteem, your ability to work in a team, your relationship with others. It is a way whereby you can take out your anger, frustration, or any negative feelings, either on paper or using words, rather than using violence.”
Steve Champion, on death row in San Quentin since 1984, agrees. He once told White: “Painting, like any art form, creates a focus and a meditative state of mind. Why prisoners paint has to do with healing internal sounds and resolving inner conflicts within themselves.”
Through art, charities such as the Koestler Trust and individuals such as White aim to bring light onto these men society has discarded. “I want to give a voice to people who have not been allowed one, who have been stripped of basic human rights,” White explains. “If there is anything I’m trying to do, it is to show the emotions behind the people that are being accused of these crimes. It’s not just a name, a number and a crime; it’s a person who’s got feelings.”
Whilst in the free world, art imitates life; in San Quentin, art recreates it: “Often these guys paint what they would like to be seeing,” White explains.
Rooster Pride by Royal Clark (credits: Nicola White)
A Mother’s Thoughts by Keith Loker (credits: Nicola White)
Untitled by Alphonso Howard (credits: Nicola White)
American Car by Keith Loker (credits: Nicola White)
Drifting on Memories by Anthony Navarro (credits: Nicola White)
What it Was by Daniel Cervantes (credits: Nicola White)
The Reflection by Doug Dworak (credits: Nicola White)
Mcway Falls by Jerry Frye (credits: Nicola White)
Grizzly Bear with Salmon by Doug Dworak (credits: Nicola White)
Flirting Egret by Royal Clark (credits: Nicola White)
Struggle by Luis Maciel (credits: Nicola White)
La Rêve du Rendez-Vous Secret by Tauno Waidla (credits: Nicola White)
Girl with a Pearl Earring by Todd Garton (credits: Nicola White)
Untitled by Charles Stevens (credits: Nicola White)
Warning, Peligro by Luis Maciel (credits: Nicola White)
Some, like Royal Clark or Doug Dworak, paint birds, fish, trees, seas; landscapes and parts of the world they haven’t seen in years.
Others, like Todd Garton, sentenced in 2001, copy pictures they find in books, from The Girl with a Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer to The Dance Examination by Edgar Degas.
Convicted in 2002, Anthony Navarro reflects on his life inside and outside prison. In Drifting on a Memory, he depicted himself looking through a keyhole at the free world, longing to be on the outside.
Keith Loker, sentenced to death in 1995, uses only minuscule dots made with a fine pen. A Mother’s Thoughts represents his mother remembering him as a little boy, a reminder for Loker of the pain his sentence has caused his family.
For Clark, the poet and political cartoonist we met earlier, art is a way of tackling the injustices of the world head on. “If I see any form of injustice, I like to make a social commentary on it through my cartoons. I try to think of a visual way to convey my thoughts and feelings on that particular issue,” Clarks explains.
“If I can get people talking about certain topics, I’ve accomplished one of my goals with art and my writing. I want to get people talking about the injustices that happen in the world. If I could actually facilitate change with my writings and drawings, that would be another goal I would have accomplished.”
Clark’s art is certainly timely. In light of Arkansas’ plans to conduct eight executions last month, death row has come back to the forefront of social issues. Anti-death row activists such as Sister Helen Prejean have been taking to social media to express their discontent and fight for these men’s lives.
It is unclear how long the men of San Quentin have to live. Although the state of California has not executed anyone in more than a decade, the results of a recent referendum may change things. Voted by 50.9 per cent in November 2016, Proposition 66 aims to quicken executions by speeding up the appeal process —now lasting on average two decades. The court is expected to rule on the initiative in August, so in the meantime,
Let there be art.