Daniel Landry has been on California's death row since 2001, but he has been living behind bars for 31 years. It was during that time he stumbled upon a gift, an artistic talent that he may never have known he possessed had he been a free man. Since that time, Daniel has drawn and painted countless pieces, and some have even survived! He says, "I hate most of them, at least at some point in the process, so I tear up a lot of things." Art has become an outlet for his moods and also one of the few ways, as an imprisoned man, he feels he can leave his mark on the world, or possibly a legacy. "Drawing, painting, doing my art is like a schizophrenic part of me. My mind is always coming up with ideas, things I want to try, and then I forget about 99% of them and just do what feels right at that moment. Sometimes I have to do it, draw, paint, something. I'll look over at something I started and see something I need to do to it or something I need to fix, but I'll try to watch tv or do something else. I try to leave it alone, but then I keep looking back at it and it'll drive me crazy until I do it. And then sometimes I can't stand to even think about it... But it's the thing I always go back to."
Daniel also tries out different styles, reads up and teaches himself new techniques. He says its a challenge to see if he can do landscapes, seascapes, portraits, etc. with pencil, with ink, with acrylic, and so on. He loves to mix mediums and see what happens, good or bad, and finds it is a way to stretch the look, the quality, the capabilities of the mediums he has available to him through San Quentin's hobby program. Its a productive way to focus his energy.
Daniel also enjoys art history and artist's biographies. Though it isn't formal education, he chooses to read about artistic movements and specific artists because they can also inspire him to branch out with his own work. But sometimes inspiration can be as simple as getting lost in an image from a magazine... Alaskan wilderness, underwater coral reef, the starry sky. And during times when emotions like frustration, irritation, or anger strike, creativity can flow just as freely. For example, after hearing about the prices people paid for certain Christopher Wool and Barnett Newman works, among some others, he was dumbfounded, but also driven to express his feelings on canvas. This led to his 3-part body canvas series.
The easiest and most common way prisoners interact with people outside of the stone walls is through writing letters. For someone who considers himself to have a block when it comes to writing, Daniel doesn't have a lot of options for reaching out, so, overall, he uses art to communicate with the outside world. Art is hope, art is an outlet, art is interaction, art is learning, changing, evolving. To Daniel, art is all of these things.
In January 2018, one of Daniel Landry’s artworks will be displayed in a central London art gallery as part of the FaceValue2 art exhibition curated by UK artist Gary Mansfield, who as an ex-convict, has spent time behind bars himself. The exhibition will consist of over 25 collaborative artworks by a variety of artists ranging from prominent to lesser known. The exhibition aims to show the effect that an outside influence can have on one’s identity, ranging from minimal to near devastating.
A few weeks ago, I spoke to Daniel and asked him about his art, what it means to him, and how art can provide a means to find a way out of depression.
When did you start to discover your artistic abilities?
“Purely by accident out of boredom. I’m not even really sure. I had a pen and a piece of paper and I saw a really cool picture in the National Geographic. It was a raven, so it was black and white and I decided to experiment with the ink, dots and lines and circles and then I settled on the circles and started creating just out of nowhere”
How did it make you feel when you saw the finished piece?
“Well even to this day most of the time I can’t stand it when I look at a finished piece, but then it all came together in the end and I thought - maybe I can draw a bit so I pursued it after that.”
Can art help cope with feelings of depression?
“If something is being done with the art, it helps. It helps if it brings something to someone else. It can help when I know it is being used for someone, or doing something good for someone.”
Daniel, you’ve created some wonderful pieces and I love the body canvas series. Tell me about them
"With these, it is is the first time I allowed myself to go outside of the “every line has to be perfect” – It was the first time I let my sense of humour, my emotions and feelings come out. It happened a lot quicker than it would have done normally when I was creating these pieces. The process was easier. I had thought about them for years but never really thought it would be easy, until one day I just basically sat on the canvas and thought that was pretty funny. It kind of works".
Body Canvas Series
"The money paid for some modern art from elite art schools, I just didn’t get it, so being whimsical, I got a washcloth, put a bunch of paint on it, wiped it on my backside and sat on the canvas. I entitled it how it was and how I felt. "Kiss my Ass!". It was a true response to how I felt”.
"For the torso piece, 'Seriously, Let me Out', this is a print of my upper body. I did the chest first, then the face. Everything is the actual body part. Then I put it together – as if Im pressing against a shower window”.
Do you ever teach other inmates?
“I have had people ask me questions and if I know I will tell them, but I still consider myself a beginner and I don’t think I’m that good or that I really deserve to teach people. I think people need to find out for themselves. I discovered it on my own”.
What gives you ideas/inspires you?
"Sometimes it will just be a combination of colours. I see something in my mind’s eye that has to be done. When I meditate, images go through my head and then maybe as much as a year or two later I‘ll try to do something with them. Sometimes I have to do it immediately. Sometimes I throw it away as it doesn’t sit well. Sometimes I have as many as ten to twenty half done pieces of work. So I turn them to face the wall so I don’t have to look at them. I can leave a project for a year. It depends on the mood and everything coming together. I try not to go in with any set idea. Anything could happen at any time..."
What messages are you conveying in your art?
“What I do purposefully is I try not to overthink what im doing. I let it happen and if it has an impact… I want it to have an impact....I hate it here, I hate it – so I want the art to go out and do something. What that is and how that is I don’t know. I don’t think too much on it.
Describe your creative process
I listen to classical music and can get lost in that. You get an image and couple that with your art. I can accidentally stumble on an image and from there, drawing takes on a life on its own. So yes, I paint listening to classical music or something instrumental. I get into it. Combining the two allows me to relax and to let the art go.
You mentioned a piece that you are working on which is related to a suicide attempt
"Yes it's called 'Is this the only way out?'. “The painting is like a bestial face full of terror and rage, holding up cut wrists with blood dripping from them. “All life is leaving him. I made a suicide attempt. I succeeded and my heart stopped and they bought me back which is kind of interesting for lack of a better word. I did take myself out but then here I am and it’s like 'Is this the only possible way out?'. And then you think maybe you have to move on and express it in other ways and instead of actually doing it you can do it in other ways through art. I thought life had to end, that life had to stop; let’s end it and see where it leads, and then you come back and ask yourself ‘well, maybe it’s not the only way out?’
"I have spent time in Alaska. The calm water and reflection – the soft vegetation and beautiful house. The combination of the human touch, as well as nature– I have always liked that peaceful scene"
“How do you feel about being involved in the FaceValue2 London art exhibition?
“I like the idea of it. It’s cool to be involved. I’ve never thought of someone touching my artwork. I have a problem with it myself at times.
Is there anything else you'd like to say about your art, about you, about Daniel?
“I just really want for it to go somewhere and for the art to take me out of here. Be able to do something outside of this place. I want the art to take me away, not the other way around. Im trying not to get too far ahead. I just draw and hopefully it will take me somewhere. Im willing to do whatever it takes and I hope something works. The next body piece I am working on will be realistic. I haven’t exactly figured it out yet, but somehow, I want the body to be donating itself and giving life to something else."
Thank you Daniel, for taking the time to talk to us.
Keep being creative and enjoy where your art takes you.
As of July 2017, we are writing a quarterly (or thereabouts) newsletter with updates on the project for the inmates to read. The first issue is here, and if you'd like to stay updated too please click subscribe.
Article today appearing in the Guardian newspaper - ' Art on Death Row as the new tool in fight against Death Penalty' , Australia, by Sharon Verghis. .
Some Articles about the ArtReach exhibitions - Artwork and Writing by Artists and Writers on San Quentin death row
Our first exhibition in Greenwich, London in June 2016 was a huge success. Here are a few articles about the ArtReach project, how it came about, and the first exhibition. I am always on the lookout for new venues, large or small, to display the artwork and poetry/writings of the men on San Quentin death row. The aim is to enable them to share their work and to highlight the importance of creativity to people experiencing difficult circumstances. If you are interested in hosting an exhibition or in knowing more about the project, then please do get in touch with me on email@example.com