Painting for Prison Reform: Prison Renaissance program at San Quentin uses art to end cycles of incarceration

SAN QUENTIN, Calif. (KGO) – Rahsaan Thomas served more than 20 years in prison in San Quentin State Prison.

“One day I’m in my cell all day and the other day I get off 90 minutes. So a lot of my time waits for those 90 minutes,” he says with a giggle.

Thomas used his time in prison to achieve a lot. He has completed his associate’s degree and is aiming for a bachelor’s degree. He is a freelance writer for The Marshall Project and San Quentin News, advocating for incarcerated voting rights and criminal justice reform.

He’s also curated an art exhibition, almost entirely from his cell.

After a presentation by Bryan Stevenson, a well-known civil rights attorney, Thomas was inspired by the idea of ​​”proximity”.

“When I heard him talk about a way to stop the mass incarceration and improve our criminal system by getting closer to the problem, I realized that I was near the problem, gave me a lot of insight and gave me a lot of instructions giving correct solutions, “said Thomas.

Thomas and an imprisoned colleague, Juan Meza, founded “Prison Renaissance” together with a former imprisoned man, Emile DeWeaver.

“He got the idea. He just wanted to find a way to use closeness and art to make a difference,” Thomas said of DeWeaver.

Prison Renaissance aims to use art and community to end cycles of incarceration. They want to create more closeness between the public and the imprisoned. The program provides incarcerated artists and writers with a platform to build personal and professional relationships with people outside the prison and in their field.

The renaissance of the prison gave Thomas the opportunity to curate an art exhibition that consisted of works by 12 imprisoned or formerly incarcerated people. The exhibition, entitled “Meet Us Quickly: Painting For Justice From Prison”, is digitally moderated by the Museum of the African Diaspora.

“First off, let me be honest, I don’t know how to curate anything. I stumbled into this position,” said Thomas. “I just use my untrained eye to really decide what is beautiful.” He continues: “Because I think art is beautiful. Even if it describes something ugly, it is still beautiful.”

The themes of the works of art are diverse. But each piece includes a written statement by the artist in which he communicates his message and perspective in his own words.

“We take the art of the imprisoned,” says Emile DeWeaver, founder of Prison Renaissance and formerly imprisoned in San Quentin. “We make sure they still own it and we pay them for it.”

The pictures will be auctioned publicly. According to DeWeaver, a painting sold for $ 1,100. Prison Renaissance gives 85% of the proceeds back to the imprisoned artist.

“We hope they can earn an income in prison so that by the time they get home they will have a resume. They have community connections with people who work in their field,” Rahsaan said.

The exhibition is also intended to challenge the way we see incarcerated people.

“These are artists who say I want to be seen,” says DeWeaver. “I want to be seen as an artist, not just as an imprisoned artist.”

“Meet Us Quick: Painting For Justice From Prison” is digitally hosted by the Museum of the African Diaspora until March 31, 2021.

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