Saturday 24 June 2017

Live from Death Row

When I was 18 my ambition was to teach in a prison. I was smart and it seemed like a perfectly natural path for me to follow at that time. All I had to do was get the grades to put me into the right university for the course. I flunked. 

35 years later and now an artist, I am reminded of that ambition as I find myself looking at an exhibition of art and poetry by people on death row in San Quentin prison.

The exhibition is being shown at Sun Pier House a community arts centre and cafe in Chatham. The cafe area is large, calm and light with panoramic windows. The artworks and the writing sit naturally in the spaces between bookshelves, cabinets, objects, sofas, tables and people. Outside the swans float over the sparkling, rippling water of the bay with the cranes from the old shipyard in the distance. It's a beautiful day. I start to look at the words and pictures on the wall while waiting for my coffee. By the time it comes I have already been moved to tears twice. 

I see a lot of art. Art with ridiculous price tags. Art about art. Art that thinks its politics. Trending art. Art that tells you exactly what you’re supposed to feel about it. Art that's really not art at all. I see a lot of shit claiming to be gold and even gold claiming to be shit because that's the joke the audience believe it's in on. Then there's art as asset, moved like currency between members of a very small club. It has all become rather unreal as if art does not belong to artists anymore. It no longer communicates the fundamental and transformative need for a safe space in which you can talk to yourself about what it's like to be human.

In these truly crazy and fragmented times it is becoming harder to hang onto the belief that there even is a universal, let alone reflective, human experience. But here in these paintings, drawings, poems and writings there is no doubt about it at all. There may be a beginning and an end but it is really that journey in between that ultimately defines us all as human. Not where we've been. Not what we own. Not what we look like. And certainly not how we die. 


I discovered this exhibition and ArtReach while doing research for my own online project about death and dying.  ArtReach is a charity set up and run by UK artist Nicola White. In 2010 Nicola began corresponding with a death row artist via the Lifelines organisation. She visited San Quentin in 2015. From this visit ArtReach emerged and has now organised several exhibitions of death row artists and writers.

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  1. Mmmm... very thought provoking. I am very empathetic, and easily take on others pain, just cannot seem to help it, which can be difficult at times. It also causes me a great dilemma when confronted with projects such as this. In brief the inhumanity of legally killing another, the waiting. The race, creed, poverty, status issues that affect trial outcomes. Abusive early years perhaps. The humanity of rehabilitation, to never give up on anyone, no matter what. Art as alternative therapy, among many other less conventional methods is sound.I hold this view. Then I flip the coin and think of the victims and families of the Death Row inmates.Having read the atrocious nature of some of these crimes, some against children, I find myself thinking they are unpardonable. What if my own child had suffered so? Would I want the murderer Dead or allowed to express theirselves through Art ? I would want them dead. I hold this view. Do Art Reach have a project for victims families?

  2. Thank you for such an eloquent comment. I understand the dilemma but I think that incarceration and its loss of freedom, autonomy and any contact with human or natural environments, is actually a far greater punishment than death. Especially when it is so often decades of solitary with no way of knowing if suddenly tomorrow will be that day. Allowing a sliver of creative humanity into that situation does not constitute pardoning the crime. The crimes are not pardonable and as you say the victim's families also have to live with the consequences. I think there are more victim support measures than there used to be which is a huge development in itself but Art Reach, like most of these things, is a project driven by a committed individual with very limited resources unfortunately.

  3. Regarding the first comment above. Thank you for this. Yes, it's an emotive subject that is for sure, but as in everything, be careful not to tar everyone with the same brush. There is good and bad everywhere, even on death row. No crime is acceptable, but there is a certain misconception attached to death row. Not everyone is in there having committed the types of crimes to which you are referring. But regardless of the crimes, I think the point is, revenge (which is what the death penalty is) is not and never is the answer. Killing someone for having killed someone doesn't really make sense does it? Also, be assured that 10% of any proceeds goes to a charity which helps to provide scholarships to family members of victims of crime. Being in prison is the punishment. Continuous punishment within the prison should not be the case, and indeed, everyone has the right to express themselves in an acceptable way from behind prison bars. In this case with art and writing. We have a very large organisation here in the UK who do this with prisoners, called the Koestler trust.