A Brush with Redemption

Alcatraz Prison
In here you have plenty of time to refine you artistic skills. Everyone's art studio is exactly the same size too.

Some painters enjoy going on painting retreats to get away from the everyday grind and enjoy some quiet creative time on the easel. Usually these retreats range from a weekend to a full week in a remote part of the world. Often people go on these retreats because they simply can’t find the time to paint during their busy work week. Well there is a certain group of people who have nothing but time and they fill it with painting. While this is great, the people in question are people with questionable morals. No we’re not talking about politicians. We’re talking about prisoners. You know, the folks who like the color orange or sometimes black and white pinstripes? Yeah, prisoners.

On a recent trip to San Francisco, I was able to visit Alcatraz Island again. I hadn’t been there since 2004 and this was my first night tour. It was a bit spooky but it was also enlightening. Before I go on let me make something clear: In general I really could care less about the prison population. Most of them know the difference between right and wrong; they chose the wrong and ended up getting caught. So 9 out of 10 prisoners are just evil to me and they can stay locked up as far as I am concerned. There is no such thing as rehabilitation for murderers, rapists, and molesters. OK now that I made that point clear let’s move on. So 9 out of 10 inmates are a lost cause, but perhaps that other prisoner has the ability to look past himself, his anger, and his pain to see the beauty in the world. I tend to believe that this kind of inmate simply has lost faith in the world and himself. He needs to be educated on the world he has never met. A good place to start is from within. Developing one’s frustrations into something creative is good therapy. Why not place that energy into something productive? That is exactly what some inmates have done as they are painting in prison. There is a small room in the old main cell block building where the park, Alcatraz is now a state park, is displaying art from inmates.

I found this art to be as intriguing as any of the most famous works of art I have ever seen. Yes, I have seen some the biggest in my life time: the Last Supper, the Blue Boy, the Last Judgement, Night Hawks, American Gothic, and more. This art, while not spectacular on a technical scale, makes an immediate impression from a narrative standpoint. Viewing the art I found myself feeling their anger, fear, sadness, and even a bit of remorse. These artists are not just painting to pass the time, even though they have plenty of it, but rather to express themselves in order to understand the world, society, and even themselves better. I have always advocated that painting is therapy and this is more evidence to that point. One painting in particular grabbed me. The work was entitled “Justice” and at first glance it looks like it was painted by a 7-year old. But the more I looked at it the more I realized there was a deeper story to it. The artist, Les Dewberry who was serving time at Pelican Bay State Prison, depicts criminals and what appears to be cops fighting on each side of an outline of the state of California. The state is covered in bars like a jail cell. The criminals appear to have guns and a red or blue bandana (bloods and crips gang colors). Behind this shootout appears to be a large crowd of faces with the word ‘VOTE’ appearing throughout the crowd. As I looked at this, I noticed that a jail cell door was painted on the left and looked like it was open. So it appeared as if the police were pushing the criminals into the jail cell. There is a ’13’ painted on the cell door, but I am not sure as to the meaning. It could be a message of how “unlucky” those people are to have been caught and thrown in jail or perhaps how unlucky they are to have been born into their situation. Then again it could be another gang reference like the 13th street gang that runs across the country. At any rate, the reason I like this piece is that it draws a reaction with the most minimal of figure renderings. The people are nothing more than stick figures and yet I could look past that to focus on the story. It’s strong and yet leaves you asking yourself “is there something we can do to fix this never-ending cycle of violence?” Notice there is a cent sign in the jail cell while there is a dollar sign behind the cops. There is definitely a statement here about social economics. I’m not sure if Dewberry is blaming the cops, the criminals, the voters, or the system in general. But I like the fact that its left a bit open-ended so you won’t jump to conclusions. Art that leaves you thinking is always good art if you ask me.

Justice (1993) Acrylic on canvas - Les Dewberry
Les Dewberry painted "Justice" in 1993 while serving time at Pelican Bay State Prison.

Now I am not making any political statement here. I am only making an observation about the power of painting and art in general. I like the idea of painting being used as a rehabilitation tool for that small sliver of the prison population who could actually reform their life. Imagine what Bob Ross could do to these folks? Happy Parole!

How about my website? If you have been on my site in the last few days then you noticed is has a new look. Yes, it took me a year to finally do something about the look, but I finally have something to show for my efforts as I released the 2nd version of my site on November 1. The main objective for the site was to make it look more inviting. Gone is the blackness which has been replaced by a neutral soft brown color. I have refined the video page to allow for easier viewing. The galleries now offer better viewing as you can click an image to get a closer look along with a description of the painting. The site still has some work left as I need to do some programming to incorporate a back-end database. The database is needed to make the addition of new paintings easier for me and easier for the viewer when making a purchase. Everything works well for now so I’m happy. That doesn’t mean it’s perfect. I have many ideas for improvements before the 3rd version is released. For example, the list of purchase options in the gallery is crowded so when the programming is done, only one PayPal purchase link will be displayed at a time as you peruse a gallery (I thought separating the galleries by subject would make the experience easier as well).That is coming soon but I have other things to tend to in my life first.

In my next blog post you will get a more detailed update on the Doc Holiday and Joker painting that I’m working on. The refined site has an “In Production” session for which I will start to use to give up to date information on my current projects. For those interested in subscribing to my blog, I have a link on the site that you can click to get emails about new topics that I post here. I hope that if you enjoy the site enough that you will consider subscribing. Enjoy your Autumn! Subscribe to Brushes & Bytes!