Still Life The Jailhouse Jackson Pollock


Part 2: 'Isolation is Hell'

Visitors are not especially welcome at Pelican Bay, and today only a few people have made the long journey from San Francisco or Los Angeles. Visitors have to hand in their ID before passing through a metal detector. Then they get an invisible Disney figure -- the prison guards have a sense of humor -- stamped on the back of their hand before they pass through two sets of locked gates and enter a prison bus, where a couple of gangsters' girlfriends and two elderly couples are already sitting waiting. "My son's a good boy," says one prisoner's father. Then he grins: "Just kidding."

Donny sits in his prison overalls behind the thick glass of visitors' cell number nine, smoothing back his shoulder-length hair. He admits that he's not all that well-informed about art, but he likes Joan Miró and Jackson Pollock. "And I love van Gogh, too, because he was also an outsider," he says.

He says he did a bit of drawing in the past, like most other prisoners. In the US, "Prison Art" is fairly well established. Many prisons run art courses and provide inmates with materials and there are even collectors who specialize in the genre. And there are good reasons why prisons should want to promote art. An evaluation of California's "Art Behind Bars" program showed that inmates who had taken part in the project were less likely to re-offend after being released.

But the powers-that-be in Pelican Bay see things differently. "Prison is a deterrent," says a prison spokesman coldly. "We don't want prisoners to enjoy being here." Nobody is going to offer inmates paint or paintbrushes at Pelican Bay.

An Antidote to Gray

One day, Donny's pen pal, a semi-retired psychoanalyst who works with prisoners, told him in a letter that he should do "something with color" as an antidote to his gray surroundings. Donny didn't have any materials to paint with, but -- necessity being the mother of invention -- he made his own paintbrush using strands of hair, plastic wrap, foil and a ballpoint refill.

Then he ordered a packet of M&M's from the prison canteen, added some water to the chocolate beans to extract the color from the outer candy coating and started to paint on the back of a prison postcard.

The first night Donny used his new paintbrush, he didn't feel tired. He forgot his cramped cell, the slow passage of time and the deadly monotony of prison life, and just painted for hours on end. That night, says Donny, he suddenly felt purposeful and more powerful than ever, "because I could express myself through colors and shapes and symbols like never before."

The next day, he sent the picture to his pen pal then immediately started working on a new painting. In the weeks and months that followed, Donny developed a range of painting techniques of astonishing ingenuity. He extracted a kind of glue from jelly beans and used it to stick eggshell pieces onto a postcard for a mosaic effect. He sprinkled pepper onto his pictures. His favorite color is a dark red-brown which is easily made from coffee.

He often starts a painting by biting off the tip of a ballpoint refill, blowing the ink onto the paper and using his perforated cell door to create a cross-hatching effect. Everything around him has become part of the creative process, and the boundaries of his cell are no longer the boundaries of his world.

Soon after sending off his first picture, Donny got an enthusiastic reply from his pen pal, who told Donny his pictures were "marvelous" and "fantastic" and urged him to carry on painting.

Donny produced one picture after another, full of exploding shapes and colors that stand in sharp contrast to the monochrome brutality of prison life. He sent them to his friend, who organized an exhibition of Donny's works in Mexico. The pictures were a big success, selling for $500 a piece. Even the New York Times wrote a report about the convict who "turns M&Ms into an art form."

But the prison directors weren't happy about the media attention being showered on their creative prisoner. His cell was searched and a paintbrush confiscated.

After the exhibition, the prison directors took disciplinary action against Donny for engaging in "unauthorized business from inside prison." He was no longer allowed to send pictures to the outside world. But the public interest was huge and a short while later he was allowed to post things off again. While some people may debate the artistic merit of Donny's pictures, few would deny he has a right to paint.

A Guarantee of Sanity

Renowned sculptor Louise Bourgeois famously said that "Art is a guarantee of sanity." Donny's case shows the slogan contains an element of truth.

Solitary confinement has driven many people insane. One disturbed prisoner in Pelican Bay covered himself with excrement in his tiny cell. Half a dozen prison guards hauled him out of his cell and dumped him in a tub full of boiling hot water. Then they rubbed away the excrement with wire brushes until the skin hung in flaps from his body.

The brutality of some prison guards is only exceeded by the mercilessness of the prison gangs. Inmates who break their rules or who are considered traitors pay with their lives. Only a few months ago, yet another prisoner in Pelican Bay was found murdered in his cell.

For years, civil rights' groups and psychiatrists have criticized the prison conditions at Pelican Bay. They maintain that the unlimited solitary confinement for inmates like Donny and the lack of sensory stimulation in this grim concrete gulag constitutes a form of psychological torture. His mother comes to visit him once a month but Donny hasn't touched her in 22 years. "I'd cut off my right arm to be able to hold my mother," he says.

Modern forms of solitary confinement were pioneered in the US. As early as 1842, after visiting a prison in Philadelphia where inmates were kept in solitary confinement, the English writer Charles Dickens wrote that he considered "this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body."

Yet Dickens observed something else as well. He noticed that in one cell a prisoner had "extracted some colours from the yarn with which he worked, and painted a few poor figures on the wall."

A Creative Force

For Donny, after 25 years behind bars, time no longer means very much. "I don't know if I'll ever get out of here," he says. But if he does get out, he says he wants to open an art studio and work with prisoners' children.

He himself is the son of a convict. He's convinced that if he'd discovered his creative side when he was young, then he wouldn't have gone off the rails the way he did. In a letter, Donny once wrote: "The creative force used to be the destructive force that drove me."

But Donny still has hope, despite his ruined life. Suddenly his eyes light up and he starts talking about images of space viewed through the Hubble Space Telescope, exploding supernovas and star clouds -- the chaos and the enormous spaces he dreams about when he's painting in his tiny cell.

Then there's a click on the intercom -- time's up. Donny sticks his hands backwards through a slot in the door so the handcuffs can be put on. "Isolation is hell," he says. "But I’m trying to do something with myself."

Outside, the sun has nearly reached its zenith. A seal has been washed up on Crescent City beach. Days later, it's still lying there, with its glossy coat and gouged-out eye sockets. Still life in Crescent City -- a perfect subject for a painter.


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