San Quentin's Hidden Treasure
Half a century ago, inmate Alfredo Santos created an epic work of art inside California's most famous prison. Now, he's finally receiving critical acclaim.
By Ron Russell
Vernell Crittenden remembers the phone call. The man's voice was shaky and it was hard to make out what he was saying. Crittenden had just gone to work in the warden's office after years as a guard at San Quentin State Prison and wasn't inclined to grant a favor to an ex-convict. The caller, who identified himself as the artist who painted the remarkable murals inside the fabled penitentiary's mess halls while an inmate in the 1950s, wanted permission to come and see them and take photos. "I essentially blew him off, and, to be honest, I’ve regretted it ever since,” recalls Crittenden, the prison’s public information officer.
The unexpected request from artist Alfredo Santos nearly 10 years ago could have spelled the end of a mystery that has captivated a handful of art lovers and prison history buffs for decades. The four epic murals inside San Quentin's infamous South Block -- depicting California history from the building of the railroads to the post-World War II industrial boom -- are undoubtedly among the state's best-kept art secrets.
Measuring 12 feet tall and nearly 100 feet long, the imposing oil paintings present a kaleidoscope of people, places, and events that have shaped the nation's most populous state, rendered in a style reminiscent of Works Progress Administration murals of the '30s. "They are marvelous works, and because they're inside the prison they're totally unexpected," says Eduardo Pineda, director of education at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
Yet each in a procession of arts professionals and others allowed into the Big House to view the murals over the years has left with a nagging question: Just who was the artist? Because many of San Quentin's records from the 1950s -- including inmate personnel files -- were thrown away years ago, prison officials knew little about Santos other than his name. Indeed, the California Department of Corrections even now possesses no documentation to show that he was ever on its prisoner rolls.
What has long been known is that the murals were the product of a competition in 1953, open to all inmates, to paint the cafeteria walls. But the astonishing sophistication of the work -- imbued with leftist political imagery extolling working-class virtues at a time when McCarthyism was rampant -- has for years been a source of intrigue to the few art historians and others familiar with the murals.
"Inmates and prison personnel have spent countless hours gazing at those murals for a lot of years, and it does make you wonder about the person responsible for them," says correctional officer Dave Kilmer, who heads an association that oversees the independent San Quentin Prison Museum, located just outside the prison walls.
Some observers assumed, erroneously, that Santos might have been among the unsung apprentices who helped WPA artists paint San Francisco's beloved 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," says Jennifer Golden, an art history instructor at Sonoma State University.
As it turns out, however, the mystery muralist is not only alive, but by his admission, has -- until now -- studiously protected his obscurity in connection with the artwork. "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," says Santos, now 76 and living on Social Security in a modest San Diego apartment crammed with his art.
Santos was 24 years old when he went to prison in 1951 for selling heroin. Four years later, he finished the last of the panoramic San Quentin panels just in time to meet a self-imposed deadline -- his parole date. Upon being released, he worked as a caricaturist at Disneyland for two years, then returned to his hometown of San Diego to open the first of a string of galleries that, over the course of two prosperous decades, led him to Mexico, New York, Florida, and, ultimately, after his health failed, back to his native California. He hasn't seen the murals since leaving San Quentin. Following his unsuccessful bid to visit the prison a decade ago, he concluded that he probably would never see them.
But that's about to change.
Come July 26 Santos will for the first time in half a century walk through the 150-year-old iron gates into San Quentin's main yard and once again make his way to South Block. But this time, he will enter as an invited guest. As this article went to press, he was slated to be the featured speaker later that night at a fund-raiser for the prison museum association at San Rafael's Four Points Sheraton Hotel. He will be the first former inmate in San Quentin history to be presented with a "key to the prison," an honor usually reserved for dignitaries and retiring correctional officers.
The museum group, which consists mostly of prison guards and their families, jumped at the chance to extend the invitation after receiving a letter from one of the artist's friends three months ago. The friend had persuaded Santos to let her make one more try on his behalf to get permission for him to see the murals. Upon receiving the letter, Kilmer, the association president, called the former inmate to tell him that he had been looking for him for years. "It's like finally solving a riddle," he says.
Perched on San Francisco Bay 20 miles north of the city, San Quentin from a distance resembles a sprawling tourist resort with its red tiled roofs and sweeping views of the waterfront and Marin hills. But on the inside, it is a cold and austere place, little changed from when Santos arrived there in the 1950s. South Block, from which one enters the mess halls, was built as the largest cellblock in the world, designed to hold 2,000 prisoners in two-man cells. It is the quintessential Big House as depicted in old Hollywood movies, a living, breathing artifact much like Alcatraz. But unlike the island prison, San Quentin is still populated by inmates rather than tourists.
All of which makes Santos' murals even more startling. His work occupies both sides of two walls that divide what was once a cavernous South Dining Hall into three spaces. (A fourth, unadorned dining hall, on the opposite side of the kitchen from those bearing the murals, has been the site of some of the prison's memorable celebrity performances, including a legendary 1969 concert by singer Johnny Cash and, more recently, a show by rock band Metallica.)
The murals are as diverse as California itself, stuffed with images as disparate as Albert Einstein and legendary Barbary Coast dancer Diamond Lil. Santos pays homage to every era of the state's development, from the arrival of prairie schooners and gold miners to the coming of hydroelectric power and the rise of the aerospace and motion picture industries. Here and there the works contain personal commentary, such as a World War II induction scene in which a brawny would-be soldier (whose face is that of a real-life prison guard during Santos' stay who was said to be particularly nasty) wimps out in tears as a nurse sticks a needle in his arm.
There are also personal touches, including a storefront scene featuring the Santos Café and Tony's Tamales, a reference to the restaurant and tortilla factory operated by the artist's uncle in San Diego. On one panel, Santos painted a man gazing out from a building with binoculars; careful observers will notice that his target is a woman undressing in a high-rise window some distance away along the wall. The works also contain several optical illusions, including a San Francisco cable car that "turns" before viewers' eyes as they walk from one end of the mess hall to the other.
Even now, the murals elicit astonishment from inmates and the relatively few outsiders who've seen them. "They're incredibly sophisticated works," says Golden, the Sonoma State instructor. "To think that they were executed by an inmate in his 20s with no real formal training almost defies imagination."
To others, it's equally baffling how Santos managed to get his unmistakably leftist political imagery (i.e., his celebration of organized labor juxtaposed against symbols of corrupt government) past prison authorities during the conservative '50s. Dick Nelson, a retired assistant warden and a key figure in quelling the bloody 1971 San Quentin revolt involving revolutionary George Jackson, suggests a possible answer. "If you look at the total picture, at all the elements he's included in the murals, from the contributions of various ethnic groups to the movie industry, agriculture, the wartime efforts, it's quite possible to look past any so-called political leanings and just view it as a representation of California history, which is what I do," he says.
If prison authorities did see political overtones in Santos' work, "someone made a smart decision to allow him free expression," says Marin County historian Lionel Ashcroft, the author of a book about San Quentin. "My hunch is that if the powers that be were troubled by the political symbolism, assuming they recognized it, they probably concluded it didn't matter because the only people who were going to see it were inmates."
The artist insists he wasn't trying to put anything over on his keepers. "I wasn't overtly trying to be political with the murals. I was just expressing what I felt," he says. But then he adds, "At heart I've always been sort of a closet socialist."
The walls on which the murals were painted are the product of a fortuitous redesign of the cafeteria brought about by legendary warden Clinton Duffy, who outlawed San Quentin's infamous dungeon and instituted other reforms aimed at treating inmates more humanely during the 1940s. Duffy decided that the chow hall was too big and impersonal and ordered it cut down. He probably had no idea that he was laying the groundwork for what is arguably the state's most unusual art gallery.
In 1953, someone in the administration of Warden Harley Teets, Duffy's strict disciplinarian successor, came up with the idea of holding a contest among inmates to paint the walls. There were no announced criteria. According to the prison newspaper, any inmate who was interested could submit a sketch. Santos was an almost accidental applicant.
He had spent his first two years at San Quentin in privileged conditions. Assigned to the prison hospital because of a leg injury he sustained shortly before his incarceration, Santos drew the attention of the prison physician, Dr. Leo Stanley (who became known for, among other things, his controversial medical experiments involving inmates). Stanley arranged for Santos to remain in the convalescent section long after his leg had healed. Under the influential doctor's protection, Santos says, he set up a studio occupying three cells, from which he painted caricatures of prison personnel and fellow inmates.
He had come to San Quentin at a memorable time. The month he arrived, the prison's factory for making jute sacks burned to the ground, leaving nearly 1,000 inmates mostly to shuffle around the main yard with nothing to occupy their time. Santos says he filled his days by devouring books from the prison library. He read everything he could get his hands on -- great philosophers, biographies of famous artists, and American literary classics. From some of them, including John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, he borrowed themes for the murals.
To qualify for parole, an inmate had to work. And when the doctor encouraged him to enter the dining hall contest, Santos saw more than merely the chance to indulge his artistic energies, he says. Borrowing ideas from books and magazines, he sketched a proposal for a single wall that depicted the broad sweep of California history from the 1850s to the start of World War II. As the original mural took shape to the raves of prison personnel and inmates alike, the idea of a competition involving the other walls was forgotten. In fact, Santos says, "No one ever asked me to submit another sketch. They just took a look at what I was doing and said, 'Keep going.'"
The work, lasting two years, was conducted exclusively at night when the dining halls weren't in use. Typically he started by 8 p.m. and worked as long as the spirit moved him, he says. That usually meant until at least midnight and often -- "if I got on a roll" -- until sunrise. At times he painted almost nonstop for days, he says. Other days, he didn't work at all. "They [prison officials] respected my rhythms."
Except for a few inmate volunteers he was permitted to draft to move scaffolding (Santos had plenty of willing helpers because of after-hours access to the kitchen that such duty afforded), he worked alone. "I felt like Michelangelo, and the chow hall was my Sistine Chapel," he says. All the while, he was racing the clock, mindful of when he would become eligible for parole. Had he had more time, he would have gone back and added splashes of color to the reddish-brown oil used to execute the murals, he says. But that wasn't in the cards. "As I got to the end, I wasn't going to suggest it. I was ready to get out, and I didn't want anyone on the parole board inventing an excuse to keep me."
The third of five children, Santos grew up in San Diego as the self-professed "black sheep" of the family. His union organizer father, a carpenter, talked about radical politics at the dinner table ("I knew who Karl Marx was when the kids in my class only knew about Groucho Marx") and taught Alfredo and his brother how to work with wood. Santos preferred to draw. From the time he entered school in San Diego's Logan Heights neighborhood, teachers took note of his abilities. But his art talent also figured in his early troubles. He rebelled in high school, he says, after school officials took away two of the three art classes in which he had tried to enroll. After getting in several scrapes, he was kicked out of school in the 10th grade for punching a teacher.
Heading to Los Angeles as a teenager and sporting a mustache that made him appear much older, Santos bused tables at Hollywood restaurants, including the original Brown Derby, and took up running with a fast crowd. An associate enlisted him in a scheme to smuggle illegal immigrants across the border from Tijuana. Arrested at age 19, he spent 18 months in a federal prison in Oklahoma. Upon his release, he returned to San Diego and began smuggling marijuana as a sideline while helping his father build houses. His first and only "deal" involving heroin resulted in the guilty plea that sent him to San Quentin. He had come to San Francisco to make a delivery and was arrested in a hotel not far from Union Square, he says.
But Santos insists that even then he had no intention of making crime a career. "I was always going to be an artist," he says. "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." Yet in communications with his family while in prison, he rarely mentioned the mural project. His father, who drove to San Quentin to pick him up the day he was released in 1955, never even saw any pictures of it. "I think he would have been pleased," says Santos, "but you know I did this in a prison, and it's not like you go around publicizing it."
While in San Quentin he had developed the ability to do caricatures in less than a minute, which served him well when he took the job as a "street artist" at Disneyland upon being paroled. Stashing away his money, Santos was able to return to San Diego in 1957 and set up his own studio and small gallery downtown, while showing his budding portfolio of oil paintings and wood sculptures at a succession of one-man shows. But the newly acquired prosperity in his hometown came to a halt after yet another scrape with the law.
A press release for the opening of his gallery in Guadalajara in 1961 proclaimed that the artist had come to Mexico to "have more freedom to express himself artistically." That was putting it mildly. He had fled the United States to avoid going back to jail. By 1960 his San Diego gallery and studio had become a mainstay of that city's nascent arts scene. That spring the police raided it looking for marijuana.
The stash was above their heads, cleverly attached to a parachute suspended from the two-story ceiling. All the cops found was a roach clip or two. Nonetheless, they arrested Santos. He pleaded guilty to one count of possession, then a felony. The night before he was to appear in court for sentencing, Santos made a fateful decision. He and his 19-year-old girlfriend ran out and got married and took off for Mexico. "I advised him not to go, but he was afraid that with his prison record they'd throw him in jail for six months to a year -- which was entirely likely -- and he didn't want to be locked up again," recalls the San Diego attorney who represented him, Max Lercher, 77, a longtime Santos friend.
The marriage dissolved after a few months, with the homesick bride returning to California. But Santos flourished south of the border.
"Guadalajara gave him a fresh start in many ways," says Lercher, who was amazed at Santos' wood sculpting and abstract paintings upon arriving there for the first of several visits. Others were impressed, too. Joan Woodbury, a Palm Springs art critic and socialite who had been a B-movie actress in the '30s and '40s, declared Santos to be "one of Mexico's foremost impressionists" in one of her newspaper columns. At her urging, he slipped back into California for a monthlong show at a Palm Springs gallery despite being on the lam.
His good fortune in Guadalajara was eclipsed by his success in Mexico City. Santos moved to the Mexican capital in 1964 and set up shop on Calle Niza, near the trendy boutiques and restaurants of the Zona Rosa, the city's upscale tourist mecca. "It was really an incredible time," says Mary Ann Summers, 61, Santos' second wife. She was a young Irish Catholic woman from Chicago exploring Mexico when she met and married Santos in 1965. The union produced two sons, Chris, 35, an aspiring artist in Colorado, and Rene, 33, a part-time waiter who lives with his father. Divorced in 1977, Summers is now a librarian in the village of Woodstock, N.Y., but remains close to Santos.
"Alfredo had this fantastic gallery above a Chinese restaurant with four huge rooms downstairs and a big sunny studio loft above it," she recalls. "Between the two levels, sort of hidden away, was his bedroom, the walls of which were completely covered with photographs and paintings of nudes." And then there were the real ones. "There was a constant stream of beautiful women, and they all seemed to want to pose for him," says Lercher. "He was this magnetic young artist with a terrific following. His problem was that he couldn't manage the business side. People who worked for him stole him blind."
Lercher says he unwittingly contributed to Santos' business woes. On a flight to Mexico City the lawyer sat next to a man who revealed he had been an inmate at San Quentin, which led to a discussion of the murals. The ex-con expressed his admiration and said he'd love to meet the artist. "You should drop in and see him," Lercher recalls telling the passenger. Santos later hired the man to work in the gallery, "and the guy ended up embezzling."
At the top of his game, the ever-restless Santos relocated to Acapulco for a year and then got the urge to go stateside. The plan, he says, was to hit New York City as a steppingstone to Europe. It didn't work out. With a wife and infant son in tow, he settled into a rented apartment near Washington Square, accepting commissions from a cadre of New York clients who had discovered his work in Mexico. One of them, a matronly socialite, had a summer home in the Catskills near the sleepy village of Fleischmanns, a short drive from the soon-to-be-famous town of Woodstock.
Santos scooped up the family and moved there in the summer of 1968. Soon, with help from another patron who provided the down payment, he bought an abandoned plumbing supply store on the town's main drag and converted it to a studio and gallery. The family lived upstairs. "Alfredo's place was a magnet for every hip person for miles around," says Joel Fishkin, 61, a retired executive who lives in Connecticut and a longtime Santos friend and patron.
Fishkin discovered Fleischmanns -- and Santos -- during a ski trip to the Catskills 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." Indeed, an ad in the local paper proclaimed the gallery to be "open daily until 11:30 p.m. or by appointment." Says Fishkin: "It was its own little world, with Alfredo the charismatic central figure."
Yet despite Santos' popularity and penchant for regaling listeners with his experiences in Mexico and elsewhere, the early chapters of his life remained cordoned off to all but a few confidants. Even Fishkin, who was privy to the fact that Santos had been in prison, never knew why he was sent there. "There were certain things that even close friends didn't ask about, and San Quentin was one of them," recalls Susan MacAuley, a professional photographer in Virginia who was a Fleischmanns regular. She had no knowledge of the murals until a year ago, when Summers, a close friend, enlisted her help in a vain attempt to find photographs of the prison art.
The murals attract an enthusiastic -- if captive -- audience at San Quentin. "You think about inmates who eat in the same place every day for years and it gives them something stimulating to think about," says Crittenden, the prison spokesman. "They appreciate it."
In some respects, however, the penitentiary is a less than ideal art venue. Steam rising from hot carts used to serve food in the mess halls has taken a toll on the murals. They've undergone two restorations. The first, in the late 1960s, proved to be hit or miss. The protective coating applied to the murals caused the original reddish oil to turn brown, prompting successive generations of inmates exposed to the paintings to conclude -- wrongly -- that the artist may have used brown shoe polish.
During a restoration effort in the early '90s, the cafeteria's skylights were removed in an effort to prevent fading. "The murals were pretty dilapidated," recalls Aida de Arteaga, a prison teacher who oversaw that effort. Although inmates generally have refrained from placing graffiti on the murals, vandalism has become more of a problem in the decade since San Quentin was reduced from a maximum-security to a multilevel-security facility, with a younger, more transient inmate population. "
The old-timers were more respectful," she says. "Probably because they knew they would be looking at the murals for the rest of their lives."
Had it not been for Kim Brandon, 43, Santos would have probably never gotten another glimpse of his long-ago artwork.
A friend of Santos who used to date one of his sons, Brandon was having her hair done late last year when her San Diego hairdresser told her about a trip he had taken to the Bay Area that included a chance visit to San Quentin. "He was gushing about these fabulous murals, and I couldn't resist telling him, "I know who painted those,'" she says. The episode prompted her to persuade Santos to let her contact prison authorities on his behalf.
She plans to accompany him to the prison reunion. "Are you kidding? I wouldn't miss this for the world."
SF Weekly | July 23, 2003
"I felt like Michelangelo, and the chow hall was my Sistine Chapel"
Top and center: Alfredo Santos' murals in a San Quentin State Prison dining hall
Above: Santos at home in San Diego, 2003 | Joe Klein
Below: The artist in his Mexico City studio, circa 1967
Had he had more time he would have gone back and added splashes of color . . . "I wasn't going to suggest it. I was ready to get out, and I didn't want anyone on the parole board inventing an excuse to keep me"