Behind the 150-year-old granite walls of San Quentin State Prison lies a brutal world of physical confinement and mind-numbing monotony, a place where violence constantly threatens. It is not a place where you expect to find beauty, and perhaps this best explains the dumbfounded reaction of a first-time visitor to the prison's cavernous dining hall, where six epic murals - each measuring roughly 3.7m high by 30m long - depict a populist vision of California history.
Remarkably powerful and almost unknown to the outside world, the sepia-tone murals were created more than 50 years ago by a young Mexican-American prisoner who, after serving four years for possession of heroin, went on to a successful career as an artist. Painted mostly in a style that recalls Diego Rivera or Works Progress Administration murals from the 1930s, they almost certainly would have been protected long ago with a landmark designation if they were in a building to which the public had access. But hidden away in an overcrowded and decaying prison whose own fate is up in the air, the murals face an uncertain future.
The murals' creator, Alfredo Santos, was 24 when he arrived at San Quentin in 1951 in the back of an ambulance. "I had a bum leg from an infection," Santos, 80, said by telephone from San Diego, where he now lives on Social Security. "They put me in the convalescent wing, and the prison doc told me, 'Keep quiet, kid, and I'll let you stay here.'"
Santos, who had taken high school art classes until he was expelled from 10th grade for striking a teacher, remained in convalescent cells his entire prison stay. At first he read books voraciously, he said, and drew portraits of other inmates and, from photographs, their families. "I got paid a lot of cigarettes," he recalled, referring to the standard currency behind bars. "But I also got to really focus on art. San Quentin is where I became an artist."
In 1953, two years after he was locked up, Santos submitted the winning sketch in a competition among the inmates to paint a mural on one side of a dining hall partition. After inexplicably being denied the use of other colors, he began to apply thinned, raw sienna oil paint directly to plaster. Before long the warden ordered Santos to paint all three double-sided walls in the dining area.
For two years he worked at night in the company of guards and two other inmates, who helped with the scaffold. "Sometimes I painted for a couple of hours, and sometimes I kept at it until sunrise," he said. "They let me go at my own pace."
The murals chronicle not only California's history, but also the evolution of Santos' style. The first scenes, including an Indian village and the Franciscan missionary Junipero Serra, are rendered in the listless fashion of a 1950s textbook illustration, with isolated vignettes surrounded by areas of blank wall. "At the beginning I wanted to be conservative, to please the prison officials," he said.
But soon vignettes crowd the walls, playing like a crazy newsreel of random images; at one point a covered wagon rumbles westward not far from where an owlish Groucho Marx peeps over a movie screen. Unifying compositional elements - the World War II bomber that dominates the fourth mural, for example - lend a WPA-era monumentality.
The fifth mural, with its oil well gushing from a huge human arm and its gargantuan hog carcasses dangling from the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, feels far more hallucinatory and dreamlike. Interspersed with the grand images are small, humorous scenes, like a man with binoculars gazing at a high-rise window where a woman is undressing and a burly World War II inductee (the portrait of a much-hated prison guard) wincing as a doctor gives him a shot.