A couple of years ago, while dining in San Quentin's cafeteria, I found myself surrounded by the most amazing, multifaceted murals I have ever seen. Painted in muted sepia tones, they ranged from pastoral scenes of California history to surrealist chaos. No matter where I stood in the cavernous hall, the eyes of a gypsy woman appeared to watch me from one of the enormous, floor-to-ceiling murals.
Until recently, the murals were shrouded in secrecy. Almost no one outside of prisoners and guards had seen them, and few knew anything about the man who had painted them. San Quentin's prisoner rolls from the 1950s are long gone, so prison officials had only a name - Alfredo Santos.
The murals' sophistication, and the fact that such subversive imagery of the working class was painted during the McCarthy Era, intrigued the few art historians who knew of the work. People speculated about the artist. Some thought he might have been an apprentice to the WPA artists who painted the famous Coit Tower frescoes in the 1930s. Others speculated that he must be dead.
"You look at the magnitude of what's on those walls, and it's hard to accept that a muralist of his caliber, if he were still alive, could just vanish," an art historian told a journalist a few years ago.
About a dozen years ago, San Quentin spokesman Vernell Crittenden blew a chance to solve the enduring mystery. He got a call from an ex-convict claiming to be the artist, and asking to come and photograph the murals. Crittenden turned him down.
"I essentially blew him off, and, to be honest, I've regretted it ever since," recalls Crittenden (who happens to be a very nice man).
The murals remained a mystery for another decade. Indeed, if Marin County developers had gotten their way a few years ago, the prison might have been torn down before the outside world ever learned of Santos and the art treasures he created inside California’s oldest prison.
Another hazard has been the setting. Over the decades, steam from the prison kitchen has taken its toll. In the late 1960s, the prison tried to restore the art by applying a protective coating, but it made the original reddish oil turn brown. In the 1990s, the room's skylights were removed in another effort to prevent fading. More recently, as San Quentin has seen an influx of shorter-term prisoners, vandalism has become a problem.
Suddenly, however, the prison murals have been discovered, and Santos is enjoying a burst of fame. The New York Times carried a feature, with an amazing online slide show. An art studio in the Catskill Mountains of New York is currently featuring a retrospective on the artist, now 80 years old and living on Social Security in a small apartment his native San Diego.
So, who was the artist, and what is his story?
Alfredo Santos was the son of a carpenter and union organizer who imbued in his son the socialist spirit manifested in the murals. Santos began getting into trouble in high school, and by the time he entered San Quentin at age 24 to serve time for transporting heroin, he’d already done a stint in federal prison for smuggling immigrants from Mexico.
Two years into his term, he had the good fortune to win a prison competition for the right to paint a mural in the dining hall. He spent the next two years (from 1951-1953) on the project. As he did so, he honed what was to become his lifelong profession.
"I was always going to be an artist," he told journalist Ron Russell in 2003. "In that sense [San Quentin] was good for me. It was really the first time I could focus on what I wanted to do without any distractions."
But upon his release he hid his remarkable feat from others.
"The murals are something I never cared to talk about publicly because I didn't want people to know that I had gone to prison as a young man," Santos said.
He went on to become a successful artist. For a time, he was on the lam and living in Guadalajara and Mexico City, where he thrived as an artist; he eventually settled in a small town in the Catskills, where he had an enthusiastic following.
A longtime patron and friend recalled the scene back in the early 1970s.
"People would come and watch him work and just hang out and talk politics, art - you name it. There was always a crowd. It was its own little world, with Alfredo the charismatic central figure."
Now, thanks in large part to the notoriety over his prison murals, Santos is coming full circle - returning to the small towns of Fleischmanns for a long-overdue celebration of his work.
Photo credit: CommandZed (Creative Commons license)
The New York Times has an interactive slide show that is well worth checking out.
Photographs of the murals are available for purchase at another site.
A friend has set up a website dedicated to Santos' artwork.
Ron Russell's excellent overview of Santos' life is at the San Francisco Weekly.
Art et cetera is the Catskills studio currently featuring Santos' work.