What started out as a school essay on prison reform has turned into so much more for Los Altos Hills resident Maddy Wenig. The Gunn High School junior created a looking glass into the lives of death-row inmates by organizing an exhibition of their art and poetry.
“San Quentin Artists,” which closed Sunday at Menlo School’s Creative Arts Dance Center, featured the work of 18 inmates at the state prison who have been sentenced to death.
It all started a year ago when Wenig was conducting research for an essay on prison reform. The teen said she was shocked to learn that 2.2 million people are serving time in U.S. prisons.
“As a 17-year-old, there’s not a lot of ways that I can help people behind bars,” Wenig said. “I wanted to find a way to help these prisoners have a voice, as so many of them are forgotten, especially death-row prisoners.”
So she reached out to London-based artist Nicola White, whom she discovered through her research has displayed art created by death-row inmates at San Quentin State Prison since 2010. Wenig asked White to send her the artwork and poetry so she could display it locally. White agreed, and Wenig – who attended Menlo at the time – secured space on campus for the exhibition, with support from art teacher Nina Ollikainen.
There wasn’t room for all of the art, however.
“I now have 100 cases of San Quentin death-row artwork on my dining room table in Los Altos (Hills),” Wenig said.
Wenig and White both described the importance of sharing the prisoners’ work as a way to highlight their humanity and generate discussion about prison reform.
“We get to see another side of somebody that is maybe not quite what we thought,” White said. “I’m certainly not trying to minimize any crimes that have been committed, but what I’m saying is that they are more than the crimes committed or what they have been convicted of doing.”
Wenig described the artwork as a catalyst to morally question whether incarceration is the only option for these men.
“The art has been a way for us to see their true selves. ... A lot of people are just shocked that these are people in small cells making amazing pieces of work,” she said.
The art includes images of still-life, scenery and chicano-style work. Daniel Cervantes’ work depicts flowers in a vase; the description below it says he was inspired by his daughter, who would pick flowers and decorate the kitchen or living room.
A poem in the exhibition titled “A Cell With No Bars” by Bill Clark reads, “I can’t think of them as bars… If I do, I’ll lose my focus, my perspective, my sense of reality. I can’t acknowledge them as bars… If I do, I’ll lose my compassion, my understanding, my sense of humanity….”
A poem by Steve Champion is also part of the display. Sentenced to death row at age 18, the Los Angeles native is now 54. Champion said he has taught himself African history, philosophy, political science and comparative religion.
“You can isolate a person. You can take it and trap it, but what you cannot take is their mind and the power of their ideas,” he said in a phone call with the Town Crier.
Champion’s writing is more than just a reflection of his past – it’s also an outward expression.
“I wanted to be an example to show that if you put in the work, you can break out of this cycle of incarceration. … This is my way of making a contribution to the younger generations that are coming behind me,” he said.
Champion has published nearly 15 essays and is putting the finishing touches on his book “The Architect,” which he is writing with Anthony Ross. Champion said the book is a benchmark of self-transformation, evaluating preventive actions to violence and ways to develop a new consciousness for gang members to enable a positive transformation in their communities.
To break this cycle, he said, “you really need to show the cost of violence. Violence is not simply an individual blame, but is a part of a social system. … If we could have a school or a community center that actually teaches people principles about what respect is, as well as conflict resolution, I think this would be a great step in resolving some of the problems.”
To see the art and learn more, visit artofsanquentin.com.