Nicola White is a London-based artist whose work is fashioned from the fragments of wood, glass, pottery, and other artifacts she finds on the banks of rivers in London. It’s called “mudlarking,” a term dating from the late 19th century to describe the poor who would scavenge the banks of the Thames for anything they could find that could be sold. White takes these objects she pulls from the mud — the pottery and ceramic pieces, the dented, twisted metal forks and spoons, the smooth shards of sea glass, tarnished silver and gold rings and necklaces— and transforms them into whimsical glass fish, soaring metal birds, trees made of plastic bottle caps, reconstructed dolls. “I use things that are damaged and have been thrown away, things that society feels have no use,” she says.
It is no surprise, then, that White also works with men on San Quentin’s death row. “These people have also been discarded and are considered no use to society, thrown away, forgotten about, and I try to give them another chance, to show them that from a very dark place some light can get out.” To that end, she founded ArtReach, which provides a platform for artists on San Quentin’s death row to exhibit their work online, and in exhibitions. Over the past two years, White has staged seven exhibitions in the UK, and last month, she opened her first in the U.S. in Mill Valley, California, not far from San Quentin.
“Everybody has been very moved by the work, some people have been literally moved to tears. When you are face to face with a piece of art by someone from death row, the so-called worst of the worst, you are actually coming face to face with the humanity of that person,” she says.
White’s involvement with the artists on death row began when she started corresponding with a prisoner as part of a pen pal program almost ten years ago. For six years they corresponded, and he began sending her handmade cards and pictures. She finally visited him in 2015, and asked him about his art, and discovered he was one of many on death row who were also artists. She asked him if any of them would be interested in an exhibition of their work in London, and “Within a very short amount of time there were 40-45 men sending me their art.”
Much of the work is extraordinary, made all the more so when you consider the circumstances under which it was created. “Most of them are self-trained,” says White. “They’ve discovered this talent while they’re in prison. They’ve developed their own styles.” For some, their “paint” is tea or coffee. One of the men uses his own strands of hair, pushed into a pen top, as a brush. Another uses a feather. While much of the work is for sale, White says she’s always “made it clear that it’s not about selling your work. The primary aim is give them an opportunity to share what they’ve done, to feel that there is something beyond themselves.” The money they make is spent on art materials, and for those who have no financial help from family or friends, food.
White has also branched out to helping the writers and poets on death row. She created another website, the Sacred Eye of the Falcon, to showcase the work of Steve Champion, who was sent to death row in 1982, when he was 18. Champion is a real writer — articulate, clear, sharp-eyed. His work is remarkable, and when you remember that he also is entirely self-taught, and grew up in South Central Los Angeles, where he was a member of the notorious Crips gang, you can’t help but think of what might have been had he grown up at a different time in a different place.
In “Death Penalty Makes Redemption Impossible,” which is an excerpt from his memoir, Dead to Deliverance, Champion writes, “Executing the condemned is not viewed the same as killing a human — it is chalked up to society’s attempt to rid itself of its toxic waste. . . Proponents of capital punishment freeze condemned-to-die criminals at the worst moments of their lives; to justify their execution, they must be barred from redemption. But history is full of individuals who have made major mistakes but manage to turn their lives around and make significant contributions to humanity.”
Champion, who won first place in the nonfiction PEN Prison Writing contest in 2004 for his essay, “His Spirit Lives On: George E. Marshall,” has published several books, including The Sacred Eye of the Falcon, a collection of essays he, and fellow death row prisoners, Stanley Tookie Williams (executed in December 2005) and Anthony Ross, wrote. He and Ross have another book that will be released soon, The Architect, which aims to “offer a means of community revolution through the social transformation of gang members.”
“He’s a very strong person, who’s taken responsibility for his life,” White says of Champion. “The things he writes about redemption I just feel are so important for people to read. There’s so much misconception about the people on death row. Not everyone there is a serial killer. Some, like Steve, were very young when they were convicted and sentenced to death.” (In fact, as we report in our lead story in this issue, the American Bar Association just this week called on death penalty states to not execute or sentence to death defendants who were 21 years or younger at the time of the crime.)
None of the men whose work White has showcased has seen the websites White created because none has access to the internet. She says that Champion, for one, is “happy it’s out there, because he’s got something important to say. But it’s difficult for him [to visualize]. I tried to explain what it looks like, but he’s been there so long, just the concept of it is difficult for him.”
When White left the corporate world after about 20 years of being “trapped,” it was to pursue her dream of being an artist. “I was able to decide to leave that and pursue my art and I’m very much aware that [the death row prisoners] can’t choose to do that. It gives me a great deal of pleasure that I can give them a voice and let them tell their story through their art.”