Saturday, August 7, 2010
This image is powerful and communicates without further explanation. However,there is a story attached that deepens the meaning. In this case it is hard for me to separate the "Art for Art's Sake".
William Noguera is a resident of San Quentin prison. He is on death row for a murder that he does not deny, although he rationalizes his culpability more and more as the years go by awaiting the machinations of the appeal process.
There was a time when we owned an art gallery, in addition to our other business. A journalist who had written about both my artistic hubby and the case of William Noguera showed us this man's work and suggested we might represent him. We were intrigued and decided we must meet William before making a final decision.
An appointment was made and we submitted ourselves to security checks much more rigorous than the then pre-9-11 airport standards. We had been told what color clothing to avoid so as not to be confused with the inmates and we had previously signed papers that stated our understanding that in the case of a hostage situation the authorities had no obligation to save us.
We met a very eloquent and charismatic young man with excellent manners. He was in the family meeting room, not behind glass as we see in the movies. There were twenty or thirty other well-behaved murderers meeting with their wives and children in the same room. Plastic chairs; doors locked behind us; guards watching.
Williams version of his story was that he was known to the Los Angeles area police as one of the most prolific car thieves around. He was a boxer and athlete, who's volatile temper was partly due to steroid use. William's girl friend was allegedly forced into prostitution by her mother. William, a Catholic, believes she was carrying his child when the mother forced the daughter to have an abortion. When he found out he became enraged and stabbed the mother many times, in the heat of the moment, until she died.
William maintains that his prior relationship with the police led them to fabricate "Special Circumstances" which is what got him condemned to death. Something to do with a life insurance policy on the Mother from which he would have profited if he married the daughter.
I don't pretend to know the exact details of the whole story. I do know that we chose to set aside the artist and his situation and represent the art alone, without exploiting the story. We purchased every piece that was produced over a four year period because an artist must have a "body of work" to refer to and to produce a cohesive exhibition. We sent the money to his wife and baby son. Somehow a man who had been incarcerated for several years had a beautiful wife and infant son. (Do the math). She worked for social services in some capacity and their relationship was a secret from her job.
It was hard not to like William. He would phone regularly. "This is a collect call from an inmate of San Quentin prison. This call is being recorded. Do you accept the charges?" It is hard not to take the time to chat with someone who has waited in line to use a phone. I always kept the conversation focused on art subject matter, details, advice and upcoming events.
When you know someone on death row personally you take note of news of prison riots, lock-downs, transfers etc. No art materials allowed for weeks at a time. Each prisoner knows his position in the waiting game. Each time there is an execution he moves one number closer.
William eventually became impatient with our approach. There were others who offered more immediate gratification and promoted shows of his work with a reconstruction of his prison cell in the gallery. It is easy to garner press about his story, but the art is lost in the drama.
I still have questions for myself about what I judge and what I believe is the truth and the just sentence in this case.
One thing I am sure of is that the art can stand alone and be judged on its own merits.