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Death Row Inmates Use Art as an Escape From Prison Tedium

November 05, 1986|Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO — Freedom is only a dream for inmates on Death Row at San Quentin, but eight of them use paint and canvas to escape the tedium and depression of life behind bars.

"It means a lot to them," said Vincent Schiraldi, director of Firebird Gallery West, where a show of the prison art is on display. "I mean, what the heck do they have to live for?"

The paintings, on display through Friday, are being shown to demonstrate that despite the crimes they committed, Death Row inmates have feelings and needs, too.

"We're trying to show that people should have a chance for rebirth," Schiraldi said.

Surprised by Tone

Schiraldi said that when he first thought of displaying the paintings he feared that the works would be very negative, indicative of the inmates' anger and frustration.

Instead, he found the paintings serve as an escape valve and are upbeat, because the last thing the inmates want to create is something depressing.

"I think it's considered good art, some of it," Schiraldi said. "Even people who had been longtime death penalty advocates were real impressed."

Still, Schiraldi recognizes the state's pro-death-penalty stand and concedes that the public will not readily accept Death Row inmates being allowed to paint, sometimes for profit, or that a gallery would display their works.

Paint Behind Bars

The inmates paint in their cells with assistance from a privately paid art teacher, who instructs from outside the bars.

They sometimes sell their works to the San Quentin store, where they can be purchased by private collectors. Schiraldi borrowed the paintings on display from private owners, most of whom paid up to $200 for each painting.

One of the more notorious Death Row inmates whose paintings are being displayed is Theodore Frank, convicted of murdering a young girl. Frank's work is among the best on display, Schiraldi said. However, the director acknowledges that most of his paintings show little girls, some partly nude.

The exhibit displays many styles and subjects. "September Afternoon," done by an inmate named Running Deer, depicts a farmhouse with lush green trees and uses shadows to create a lazy, peaceful mood.

Prisoners Explain

In statements to Schiraldi, the prisoners explained how painting helps them escape the confinement of their cells.

"Art is like love of a newborn child, full of love and beauty," wrote Running Deer. "One needs to give art meaning. It's like life, one gets out of it what one puts into it."

Schiraldi does not absolve inmates of their crimes, saying, "crime still stinks. But the question is what kind of punishment do you give out?"

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