The specter of incarceration casts a very wide shadow in America, a nation that houses more prisoners than any country in the world. In spite of the tragic realities that often accompany it, the world of crime and criminals has always provided rich fodder for the public imagination, manifested in pop culture in forms ranging from folk ballads to modern-day television and film portrayals.
Artists have often embraced the topic, from Andy Warhol’s mug shot and execution chamber images to contemporary hip-hop musicians’ celebration of thug life.
Prisons such as Alcatraz (California), Sing Sing (New York), and Leavenworth (Kansas) have achieved legendary status as holding places for the nation’s most notorious criminals. Another facility that has been firmly etched into the public mind is San Quentin Prison, located just north of San Francisco, California. Built in 1852, it is one of the largest and most historic prisons in the United States. It has housed many well-known inmates, from Charles Manson and Eldridge Cleaver to country music star Merle Haggard. It currently serves as the holding facility for the largest group of death-row inmates in the country.
A number of years ago, a local collector purchased two record books from San Quentin Prison at a used bookstore in San Francisco. The records cover a span of years from 1918 into the 1930s and include a snippet of biographical information about each prisoner, both male and female, who was sentenced to serve time in the facility. In addition to the mug shot with the obligatory identification number prominently displayed, prison scribes recorded a litany of personal information about each inmate including the crime and length of sentence, height and weight, scars and tattoos, country or state of origin, occupation, and hat and shoe size. The recorder would occasionally interject a personal bias by using racial epithets to describe the prisoner’s ethnic background.
Each record had a space to document the conclusion of the prisoner’s stay at San Quentin, whether it be parole, transfer, escape, or execution. The litany of misdeeds ranged from embezzlement to assault and murder, and sometimes included offenses that would not be considered crimes today such as adultery and activist political or labor union activity. In the earlier of the two books, each prisoner is photographed wearing a hat, some of which are of the fancy variety, perhaps commemorating a last gasp effort to dress up before the prison-issued uniform became a daily routine.
For this exhibition, 11 artists were invited to use the imagery and information in the record books as a starting place for the creation of artworks for the show. Topics could range from a general statement on imprisonment to a visualization of specific individuals who populated San Quentin Prison many decades ago. The exhibit will showcase a variety of media, from painting and drawing to ceramics and photography. The exhibition will include an accompanying catalog.
Credit: Exhibition overview from museum website