two paintings by prisoners on san quentin's death row
Artworks by Alphonso Howard and Luis Maciel. Composite by VICE Staff

Death Row Inmates Are Selling Their Art on Etsy (and It's Beautiful)

“I’m not saying these men shouldn’t be [held accountable] for what they have done. I’m trying to show that they can be more than the sum of their mistakes.”
MF
New York, US
March 3, 2021, 8:39pm

California's San Quentin State Prison is the oldest prison in the state; has more death row inmates than any other state; and has one of the longest-running histories of abusive incarceral living conditions, tracing back from 19th-century disciplinary techniques that included flogging to more recent violations as “the largest single penalty in the state over workplace safety violations for failing to prevent the spread of COVID-19,” according to the Los Angeles Times

Advertisement

It also has a gift shop. 

“They call it the hobby program, there in San Quentin,” says Nicola White, the founder of an independent and unaffiliated program, ArtReach: Reaching Out with Art and Poetry from Death Row. “The whole COVID-19 situation has stopped supplies, though. They’ve stopped all the programs, unfortunately, and iInmates] haven’t had visits now for almost a year as well.” White’s initiative began in 2016 as an alternative to the hobby shop (which is only shoppable IRL), and is able to serve as a digital gallery for the art works of some 40 men on death row, ranging from jewelry and paintings to sketches and poetry. 

Mexico by Luis Maciel, $211.06 at Etsy 

ArtReach began in 2016 on not so much of a whim, but a gut instinct. For years prior to founding the program, White, who is based in the UK and a talented artist and mudlarker, befriended a San Quentin death row inmate through a penpal initiative within an organization called Lifelines. “After about four years we had a great letter writing friendship,” she says, “Nowadays we just don’t have that at all, do we? We don’t write letters to each other. ”

Eventually, she arranged a visit to San Quentin. “I spent about five hours with with him there,” she says, “chatting, just chatting about everything. Including the artwork he would send me.” She learned that he was one of many artists on death row who would trade their own creations and savoir faire within the prison. “I thought it was just amazing, and spontaneously asked if he thought any of the artists would like to do an exhibition.”  

Nicola White ArtReach

Photo: Nicola White (right) with an inmate named Doug

Unlike the hobby program, which also has not received supplies for about a year, White’s own initiative grants the inmates and/or their families a larger percentage of the earnings from their sales than the hobby program, which has a much lower rate, granting them more crafting and commissary money. “You wouldn’t find me in the gift shop anyways,” says death row inmate, writer, and cartoonist William (Bill) Clark, as he tells VICE why he prefers working with White. “She’s such a wonderful, positive person. The art is also seen and bought by more people [on the ArtReach Etsy store].” 

ArtReach Bill Clark

Art by William (Bill) Clark. Photo: Etsy

Cartoon by Bill Clark, SOLD

Clark has been on death row for years—some of which have been spent in solitary confinement. “I’ve been here since the year you were born,” he works out as we chat by phone, “Yeah. That’s when I went in. Went in for a crime I had nothing to do with.”

Advertisement

California governor Gavin Newsom’s 2019 executive moratorium has halted the death penalty, for now. But White believes that’s just the beginning of what we—and not just inmates—need to build a better system of care for one another. “There have certainly been some people who’ve just said, ‘Why? Why are you giving these people a platform? Why would you want a piece of art work done by someone who has committed a crime in your house?’” she says, “But a lot of people have looked at it, and seen more than a name and a number, and a person who has committed a crime. They see a heart.”

Autumn Buck by Michael Combs, $43.74 at Etsy

San Quentin was founded in 1852, and has seen everyone from Johnny Cash to Charles Manson walk its halls. In many ways, it’s the poster child of the American prison system at its most severe and uncomfortably self-mythologizing; a darkly iconic location, and symbol, for a national prison system with ties to racist policing and a disregard for mental health. And it’s not that cruelty always unfailingly begets cruelty. But it gets damn close on death row, and certainly tests a person’s will to live. ArtReach simply asks us: What can healing look like, for everyone?

Labyrinth of Hidden Realms by Michael Combs, $153.11 at Etsy 

Since its founding, ArtReach has had various virtual and in-person shows of the inmates’ work. “The first exhibition was over here,” says White, “and it was great to build awareness and let [the artists’] voices be heard. Remember, the death penalty doesn’t exist in the UK. Anyways, we did our first exhibition in Mill Valley, just down the road from San Quentin a few years ago, and people were really touched. Columbia University also just featured quite a lot of their work recently in a group called The Digital Abolitionist.”   

Advertisement

Particularly in the wake of 2020’s belated racial reckoning, abolitionist groups and museums alike are underlining the cruelty of the United States’ prison system, and the art that manages to flourish under its conditions; Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration is on view at MoMA PS1 in Queens, NY until April 4, 2021. If you can’t make it out, check out the accompanying book:

Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration by Nicole R. Fleetwood, $39.95 $36.75 at Bookshop

“The act of creating something can give someone a new focus,” says White about the therapeutic nature of the program, “there’s a [gratification] and element of self-esteem you won’t otherwise find in prison.” 

“I’m just glad someone out there likes it,” says painter Alphonso Howard, who was sentenced to death in 1992. “I pretty much taught myself in here. I had to do something with this time. Painting was just one of those things I had to learn in order to keep moving forward. It’s either that, or crash and burn.” 

Just Music by Alphonso Howard, $65.62 at Etsy

About 20 years ago, Howard says he was invested in the college program—and distraught when it was pulled out from under his feet. “They ended up shutting it down after two years,” he tells VICE, “because they ran out of funding. It frustrated me and threw me off, and I needed to find something else to keep me motivated to continue bettering myself.”

Advertisement

“Let me try and break it down for you,” says Steve Champion, who is one of the poets on death row, and working with White through ArtReach. “You have many individuals in here who are artists. I’m a writer, and I have a colleague who I primarily work with and of course when we come up with stuff we share and receive comments. What’s been good for me is just having somebody there to bounce ideas off of… I was reading a lot of politics and economics, and my writing took more of an analytical tone. I didn’t want to write about myself, but things that were happening. It wasn’t until a [a little later] that it became me, trying to tell the story of myself.”

Miniature San Quentin death row cell made by Christopher Spencer, $656.17 at Etsy

We know that art therapy works, providing a healthy outlet for a troubled heart. Consider Adolf Wölfli (1864-1930), one of the earliest documented (albeit inadvertent) cases of art therapy. Living with schizophrenia, and having committed a number of crimes, Wölfli was placed in a Swiss asylum for most of his life. During that time, he wrote a 25,000 page manuscript, composed music, and painted loads of furniture and artworks to calm his mind. “Every Monday morning Wölfli is given a new pencil and two large sheets of unprinted newsprint,” recorded his doctor, Walter Morgenthaler, in his 1921 book, Ein Geisteskranker als Künstler (A Psychiatric Patient as Artist) . “The pencil is used up in two days; then he has to make do with the stubs he has saved or with whatever he can beg off someone else. He often writes with pieces only five to seven millimeters long and even with the broken-off points of lead, which he handles deftly, holding them between his fingernails.” 

Life on Death Row

Today, Wölfli's artworks can fetch over half a million dollars each at Sotheby’s—usually, alongside a description like, “a former indentured farm laborer committed to an insane asylum for most of his adult life…” to remind the viewer that this is peak Art Brut, or outsider art. But many believe these labels need revisiting, if not total scrapping. “Of course, the art holds up in any arena or institution, but some tend to exaggerate connections between work that is, for the most part, not influenced by the canon, and work that is,” writes Scott Indrisek in Why ‘Outsider Art’ Is a Problematic but Helpful Label, “They think this helps to ‘validate’ outsider art, which is, of course, nonsense. In other cases, it’s just a sales technique.” 

It’s shorthand for artists whose work “[is] not academic or influenced by art-historical references,” Indrisek says, with an insistence on pigeonholing artists into a language of “othering.” Plus, it’s 2021, and, as with food or music, we seem to have culturally graduated past solely admiring "formally" trained artists. Georges Seurat did great pointillism. But so does San Quentin inmate Keith Loker:

Original ink stippling by hand by Keith Loker, $509.46 at Etsy 

“I never knew I was an artist until I was about 30,” says Daniel Landry, another of these death row artists.These days, he says he’s excited to dive into impressionist techniques. “I don’t like to repeat or do a certain style continuously,” he says, “It varies. I know what I don’t like. I’m a terrible self-critic. I’ve had pretty positive feedback from it, and the people who buy the art want to know about how and why I created it, so that’s kind of cool. Most of the time, I don’t know where it comes from. It could be anything.” 

Serene by Daniel Landry, $241.63 at Etsy

Clark says that he doesn't want his creations to be thought of as "prison art." “And what I mean by prison art, is take the images from prison and put those [on] paper, [or] what have you," he explains. "I wanted to do artwork on political and social commentary. To create a conversation. That’s important to me.” That’s one of the things ArtReach does so deftly: It creates a space for inmates to talk about prison. Or not. It doesn’t operate on a selling point for folks to own something from death row, just for the perverse novelty, thereby fetishizing trauma. Yes, part of ArtReach’s catharsis is in offering a means for inmates to explore feelings related to their crimes or time in prison. But it also understands that while the artists’ work may be informed by trauma, it is not inherently defined by trauma. It is simply asking to be taken seriously.

My Reflection by Tauno Waidla, $116.45 at Etsy

Abstract ink drawing by Rodney San Nicolas, $342.67 at Etsy 

Labrador and a Rooster During a Hunt card, $58.22 at Etsy

The Empire of Karma by Michael Combs, $152.84 at Etsy

You can support ArtReach, and learn more about the above artists, on the organization’s website; support the artists’ work on Etsy; and keep up with ArtReach's happenings on Instagram


Your faithful VICE editors independently selected all of the stuff featured in this story. We may receive a small commission if you buy through the links on our site.