Art, live from Death Row

Friday evening: Golden sunlight and squiggly pink clouds illuminated downtown Oakland’s meager skyline while pedestrians, casting long shadows, jaywalked across the wide streets between bursts of traffic.

At 23rd and Telegraph, inside a storefront/gallery/craft space called Rock Paper Scissors, volunteer curators arranged folding chairs to prepare for the night’s art event. Neatly hung canvas paintings and framed ink drawings lined the walls. Small white rectangles below each piece identified the title and artist: all of the artists are prisoners at San Quentin.

The show’s organizers, members of Campaign to End the Death Penalty and Art for a Democratic Society, put the exhibit together in order to humanize the people who, they say, society forgets.

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A flyer for the art show posted in the front window of Rock Paper Scissors read: “Some are guilty of heinous crimes, some are innocent, and all were too poor to have an attorney fairly represent them. But they are all human beings and have a story to tell.”

One of the artists, Kevin Cooper, would soon call in from Death Row to speak to the fifteen or so people who were taking seats and greeting each other in low tones. Cooper was sentenced to death in 1985 for four counts of first-degree murder and one count of attempted murder, but he won a stay of execution in 2003. Although the surviving victim of the murder attempt insists that Cooper was the one who slit his throat, Cooper’s case has garnered support from a judge, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, Jesse Jackson, and fleets of activists working around prison issues who insist that police destroyed crucial evidence that would have proven Cooper is innocent, and have compared his case to those of Troy Anthony Davis and Mumia Abu-Jamal.

Of course, one doesn’t have to take a stance on Cooper’s case to appreciate his art. His series of nighttime scenes hanging up in the gallery boasts strong African-American subjects: an elderly man who looks like a sage, a woman with onyx dreadlocks illuminated by moonlight. A painting he made of Malcolm X is rendered in warm, mustard tones. But some people who pass through the art gallery do take a “factsheet” flyer or read the artists’ bios as they pass by, according to the art show’s main organizer, Crystal Bybee, a volunteer for the Campaign to End the Death Penalty.

“I think it’s fabulous art,” said Bybee, 28. She began working against the death penalty as an undergraduate student at Mills College in 2001 and started visiting prisoners at San Quentin at that time. She visits there monthly still.

“I don’t think that people are always the worst thing that they’ve done,” Bybee said. “We think people can be redeemed. We have to have sentences that do allow for parole, that do allow for investigations into innocence claims. I think that there are more innocent people in prison than we think.”

She gazed steadily from behind her plastic framed glasses as she spoke. “Many people have seen this show and not all of them necessarily knew much about the death penalty, or these cases, so it puts us in touch with a new audience and lets them relate to the prisoners through their art,” she said.

The exhibit has been on display since the first of October and will come down next week. A series of paintings by Death Row prisoner James Anderson, convicted for murdering two women (he says he didn’t do it), have a clean, almost science fiction-like feel, featuring repeating images of open doors and unwaveringly precise checkered floors that give way to twilight blue skies scattered with gleaming diamond stars. A cluster of black-and-white drawings by Eddie Vargas, who’s serving a life sentence, showcase meticulously shaded portraits and hauntingly detailed religious imagery.20091023_lo_19

“There’s a lot of blue. To me, that’s like dreams,” Jack Bryson murmured speculatively as he stroke his sculpted beard and studied the paintings. Bryson was here to speak at the event; his son had been standing on the platform next to Oscar Grant III when he was shot by BART police officer Johannes Mehserle on New Year’s Day. Since then, Bryson has been speaking out against the BART police and the decision to move Mehserle’s trial out of Alameda County. He had been invited to Rock Paper Scissors to give updates about the Mehserle case and to talk about his own recent experience meeting with Cooper on Death Row, which he said was a “highlight of this year” for him.

Bryson wore a plain white t-shirt and loose-fitting khaki pants, his long black hair twisted back into a braid. His face was ruddy and expressive, and he made constant gestures with his arms as he spoke. Before, when he had addressed an intently listening crowd, he had told them: “When they killed Oscar, they killed me.”

He spoke while keeping his eyes fixed on the floor. “People always say, ‘I’m glad your son is okay,’” he said. “I don’t mean to be rude, but I tell them, ‘How can you say that? Both their lives are important.’”

Throughout the gallery, underneath each artist’s collection of work dangled a notebook and a pen on a string. For the past month, passers-by and gallery attendees have written messages to the artists, who will receive the notes after the exhibit comes down.

Someone wrote to Edward Vargas: “Your work is truly amazing. Although I can hardly identify with the subject matter, I’m in absolute awe of your artistic skill.”

Another scrawled note to Vargas read: “Your work is beautiful. Your work is a true testament to your ability to mentally and spiritually overcome your situation.”

Suddenly Bybee’s cell phone rang, and she jumped. “Kevin, hi. How are you? I got a good group of people here,” she said into her phone, smiling.

She held her phone up to a microphone that was connected to a small amplifier that buzzed loudly as Cooper’s voice, muffled and cracking with static from the bad connection, filled the room. His tone sounded urgent, almost terse, as he implored the activists in the room to help people on Death Row fight for better living conditions. “There are over 700 people on Death Row,” he said. “Yet you hear very few of us speak out.”

Cooper was interrupted as he spoke by a beeping noise, which someone in the audience inquired about.

“It’s a reminder that we’re being recorded,” a Campaign to End the Death Penalty volunteer said. “The prison records all phone conversations.”

The feeling in the room was like the one you might get when a family huddles around a radio during a blizzard. Many people leaned forward with elbows resting on their thighs. Some had their eyes closed. Tears shone on Bryson’s face, and an elderly man held his head in his hands. One of Cooper’s lawyers, David Alexander, was also present, looking agitated and occasionally injecting with details about the case.

People in the audience took turn asking Cooper questions ranging from general — “How many prisoners become jailhouse lawyers?”—to specifics about his case and his day—“Did you play any basketball today?”

His answers: “Many people have to learn how to defend their own cases because they have no other choice. But I don’t know exactly how many.” And: “We’ve been on lockdown. I haven’t played any ball.”

Bryson asked Cooper why he paints the night sky and stars.

“I never get to see the sky at night. Nine times out of ten, I’m in a cage at night,” Cooper responded.

One woman shouted across the room toward the phone, “Can you talk about your painting ‘Complicity — Eye of the Beholder?’”

Heads whipped around to look at the painting in question. It showed dark, inquisitive eyes peering through eye-holes of a brown mask.20091023_lo_9

“The only things that was mine was my eyes,” said Cooper’s voice coming through the phone. A pre-recorded message interrupted again: “Your call is from an inmate in a California correctional facility.”

After approximately 45-minutes of conversation and three call-backs (prison calls automatically terminate after a set amount of time), Cooper ended the conversation by thanking the attendees and imploring them to get more people to work against the death penalty. “We are human beings,” he said. “A lot of politicians dehumanize us, make us into animals. So I ask you: please get more people involved.”

Then he hung up.

One Comment

  1. This is a really great piece of reporting. I’ve reported on your article and linked back to it from http://modernchristianart.net

    Thank you, this is thought-provoking indeed.

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