Along for the ride:

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Love's Price

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.


  1. Fascinating relationship, between yourselves and William. Also, an interesting relationship between the artist and his work.

    Your closing sentence is absolutely true, though. Too many people see the 'art' but they have been conditioned to expect something else to go with it. My view is, all the time you're craning your neck to see what's attached to the back of a work, you're in grave danger of missing the point and spoiling the experience.

  2. Indeed. As all art should and must.

  3. human beings... this post just about sums up everything it means to be one :-)

  4. Sad that the sordid story would make the art more interesting instead of just being art to share with the world. You tell the story well though and without judgment. The fact that you sent the money to the wife and child and kept the story out of the media shows you and your husband are trustworthy.

  5. I hope someone will publish your story--in PEOPLE or something. I was RIVETED! I believe I am happy to hear you saw good and decent where others can't/won't. Beautiful piece and wonderful art. Thanks!

  6. I found this really interesting - and i agree that if the art is strong enough to stand on its own then it should. Selling it on the grounds of the crime is wrong - it may sell more, but i believe you did the right thing there.

  7. Martin & Steve, Art is supposed to be a form of communication in it's own right. If it can't speak to you then it is not doing it's job. You can even peel away the title of this piece and still "get" it.

    Watercats, I have so many conflicting thoughts about unravelling the threads of this life story. That must be addressed one day.

    TechnoBabe, there is a faction of art-buyers who collect "Ghoul Art" meaning anything that is associated with a crime or negative, but well publicized event. It would add to the value if William were executed. I want nothing to do with that.

    Heidi, There are always hidden depths. A magazine would sell more copies writing purely about William and everyone has their own angle.

    Pixie, There was probably a smidgen of self-interest in our approach. We didn't want to exploit or be exploited by this. A very hard line to follow still, which is why I have not written openly about this before. If you have time read a post from January called "Season in Conundrum". The poetry is William's as well as the art.

  8. A strange story, fascinating.
    If this man produces art and poetry which you are willing to represent and publish, should he be on death row now?
    I know you can't answer that. I am glad I live in a civilised country.

  9. I found this a very interesting thing to read. I'm currently thinking about someone I used to work with, who was later jailed for a very serious crime. Some people will only ever see the crime, but I can still see the person I used to work with, joke with, etc. William has a gift obviously and it would be a great shame for it to be sniffed out.

  10. Your principles were clear, and clearly you kept to them. A very interesting and sad story, all the more so because you were personally involved.

  11. Friko, more questions than answers makes for an interesting discussion, if only it did not have such human consequences from start to finish.

    Argent, We have our principles of right and wrong and we have empathy and compassion. They can be hard to balance. I'm sorry for your loss of a potential friend.

    Deborah, we chose to become personally involved and we were not naive and gullible from the beginning. There are still many questions in my head about the whole situation.

  12. A powerful and moving story, but the emotion of it all is best expressed through the art.

    Hard to accept the full tragedy of all of this, and I am impressed with how you managed to keep your perspective. No easy.

  13. Jean, there has long been debate between myself and myself regarding which points of view outweigh others. It is a human tragedy which poses an ethical riddle that I have yet to puzzle out.

  14. Marvelous art and story. Now I am positive you will be interested to learn more about the first (critically acclaimed) novel of my friend, Naseem Rakha, titled The Crying Tree. Full details at her website.

  15. Lydia, a brief look at her website makes me want to find out more. Thanks for the link

  16. I couldn't pull myself away from reading this. Awesome post,thought provoking as well as haunting.

  17. imbeingheldhostage,Thanks for the comment. Check out older post Seasons in Conundrum for more of same artist.