Kenneth "Thunder" Nowlin - Expressing Thoughts and Feelings through Art & Poetry from San Quentin death row
Kenneth "Thunder" Nowlin has been incarcerated on death row San Quentin since 2001 and is currently in the Infirmary where he has been experimenting with writing poetry on top of brightly painted coloured backgrounds. He also incorporates outlines of his hands and his finger prints. Thunder tells of how he "grew up in the system". Before being sentenced to death, he was incarcerated for six years in the CYA (Youth Prison). He was sentenced to death whilst serving time in prison for robbery. By his own self admission he used to be a racist, but he renounced his racist ways in 2011, and he completely cut ties with the gang he had been a part of. He shifted his focus to family and inner peace. Thunder now expresses himself through his writing and art and combines the two to create colourful emotional collages of his feelings. Raw and hard hitting you can read some of them below. The first poem "Suicide" was inspired by Jay Cole the Rapper, who stopped outside Thunder's cell and challenged him to write a rap and to step out of his comfort zone. Jay and Thunder spoke for about ten minutes whilst he was on a tour of the prison.
"My first time cooking in jail was at Los Angeles County Jail, where all the gangs from the Bloods neighbourhoods were housed. We had a major lockdown, and they punished us with this ugly, bad-smelling food called "juit balls". They were supposed to be all protein, red beans, with many kinds of vegetables all ground together then packed into a ball with no type of seasoning. It had a pungent smell and you definitely knew when it was time to eat when it came into the building. Once I got my first taste of them I couldn’t swallow one bite, neither could any of the other guys. I had to think if I wanted to eat at all because this would be our meal for the next three weeks. So I cleaned off the paint from the metal shelf and made a bong out of the toilet paper and this became our stove. I placed the juit balls on that hot shelf and cooked so all the grease from the meat came out. With that oil, we added some chopped beef sticks and some bbq corn nuts and we made a good meal out of something that no one could eat plain. That was the start of my cooking behind these walls…"
"Here on the row we still try to celebrate all special occasions like birthdays, holidays and sporting events, which are big in here".
Ramen Fettucini (by Letner)
(dinner for 1)
1 Ramen soup
1 pinch of salt
1 pad of butter
1 tbs oil
2oz parmesan cheese
1 pinch of garlic flakes
Boil one cup of water, add unbroken ramen noodles with sale. When cooked, empty noodles into a bowl. Add butter, olive oil, and sprinkle parmesan cheese, stir until melted. Enjoy a real fettucini dish!
Peanut butter milkshake - (by "Ru-Al")
(drink for 1)
1 - 8oz glass of milk
2 tbs creamy peanut butter
1 small packet sugar
Boil 1/2 cup water, pour into cup. Wrap peanut butter inside piece of plastic, tie tight, put into hot water until melted soft. Pour into cup of milk and add sugar. Place lid on cup, shake for 3-4 minutes until well mixed and slightly foamy on top. Enjoy my peanut butter milkshake.
Albert talks a little about sharing food in the prison:-
"Many things have changed over the years in here. We had to make many adjustments to our cooking and how we prepare these spreads. The guards were instructed not to pass the cooked food to the guys in cells down the tier anymore. So now we make it where it can fit into a plastic bag so it will slide under the cell door. Or if the guy is on the same tier and I'm going to the shower before him, I'm able to pack it good and place it in front of his cell door. When he comes out for his shower he can pick it up, put in his cell, and reheat to eat later. The guards usually wont touch the food but sometimes they will do a cursory check for contraband. For the guys living on other tiers, we have to put the food in a bag and attach it to a long fishing line so it can be fished to him. So the new rules haven't completely stopped us from trying to bring some peace of mind and happiness to a guy that doesn't have anything. It's okay to eat by yourself but there is nothing like the feeling of sharing with brothers less fortunate."
Albert also makes paints handkerchieves, creating colourful collages of his favourite bible verses on fabric.
Albert "Ru-Al" Jones handkerchief art
"Mama always made sure that we said grace before we ate because "There are people that don't have any food to eat, so say a prayer or give thanks to the Lord and be grateful for what he has provided". I have not missed one meal in the twenty-one years I've been locked up, or in my life. I thank Mama for instilling those good values and the Lord for the blessings he's bestowed.
Lord, thank you for this food. Bless them that don't have anything to eat, and keep their stomachs humble until the Lord provides them nourishment. Lord, put this food in the right place in my body, in Jesus' holy name, amen. Jesus wept!".
My Last Meal
Since I 've been here there have been about six executions. Some got their last meals, and one guy wanted to donate his $50 but the warden wouldn't allow him.
I have given a lot of thought about what I wanted for my last meal. It would have to be very close to the favourite foods that Mama had cooked when I was growing up."
Albert "Ru-Al" Jones - San Quentin death row
You can purchase Albert's book here:
Albert has a "J" plan (Jesus Plan) and knows that this plan cannot go wrong even if things aren’t always good. Albert has a strong faith which he tries to share with as many people has possible.
Thank you for reading.
Telling Stories through Chicano Art. The Vibrant Collages of Life - by a prisoner on San Quentin's death row
"Warning" - by Luis Maciel
Luis creates Chicano Artwork, "artwork created by Americans of Mexican descent, Chicano art came out of the Chicano movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s and the art of struggle" read more here.
Luis has explained that creating his vibrant collages helps him to make sense of his environment. He uses pen and markers, and he can easily spend up to seven hours a day drawing. One drawing can take several weeks such is the detail – and it is all done freehand. “Art for me is an adventure in my personal life. Every drawing that I draw has so many stories to them”. Here are some of the drawings that Luis has created from his cell in San Quentin.
"The World is My Ghetto" - by Luis Maciel
"This one I called "The World is my Ghetto". First you must know what a Ghetto is. It is a life of struggles and sadness with a lot of violence. But there is a part of the Ghetto that's good friends and family. We all try to remove the violence from our Ghettos but we succumb to the bad life. In this drawing I'm bringing the good in,and taking out the bad. Let's start with the front. In this life there is a male alpha and he represents everything. The two standing besides him are his protectors. In this case it will be my mother and father. We must always protect the woman from any bad influence. That is the duty of a brother. The two cars - the blue one with "City of Angels" on it, that is my car. We call in slang Los Angeles, "City of Angels". The other car was my friend's car. He had "Califas". Califas is slang for California. I hold this car in high regards since my friend was killed in the Ghetto. The woman on the stair rail represents hell. Since we cannot see any sunshine we are stuck in this life of "Hell". Im speaking since I'm behind bars, this place is hell. The girl on top of her, she has two women. The women represent her ears. The woman on her right is the good, the woman on her left is the bad one. On top of her head, she has a fuse. On top of her you have Minnie Mouse. She wants the girl coming out of the wall which is again Hell. She is hoping that she could touch her nose so that she could bring her to goodness. The face on top is what I call a true woman. She is a fighter and she represents all mothers out there that suffer for their loved ones. The woman that has her hand on her chest - her nails are being impaled in her skin. She bleeds roses since roses are the most beautiful thing in the world. Her nail goes through her skin where she gave life. That's why the man is holding the rose. The guy holding the pencil, that's my hand. I'm bringing in the life of good and bad, plus I'm using the ghetto ink where I'm shown the art. This is why I call my drawing "The World is my Ghetto".
"AZTLAN" - by Luis Maciel
"Fire and Desire" - by Luis Maciel
"LOVED" - by Luis Maciel
Life has many obstacles and we are always trying to find that something that wakes our heart. If we do not find it, the reason is that have been moving too fast in life. Then when we do eventually find it, we do not know how to keep hold of it. Then we start finding other things that we believe is LOVE. So then we go through so many obstacles, that when we finally figure out that what we had was true love, we kick ourselves in the ass! Love can be found in almost anything but true love is hard to find. When you find it, get ahold of it, before you turn to "L O V E D".
"Wicked Ways" - by Luis Maciel
"The Struggle" - by Luis Maciel
"I love to draw. Sometimes I just go on drawing for hours and hours"
San Quentin death row
"UNCHAINED ARTISTS" - EXHIBITION OF ART FROM US PRISONS & DEATH ROW SAN QUENTIN - 15th January to 15th March 2018, Mill Valley, California
An art exhibition featuring artwork, poetry & various handcrafted art objects, created by inmates in prisons from around the USA & prisoners incarcerated on death row San Quentin.
15th January to 15th March 2018
Bank of Marin (Lobby)
19 Sunnyside Avenue
Mill Valley, CA 94941
Opening Reception : Thursday January 18th, 2018 - 6pm-8pm
“UNCHAINED ARTISTS”: From January 15th –Friday March 15th, 2018, both P.A.T.H. and ArtReach are collaborating for the first time in a joint international exhibit to take place in the lobby of the Mill Valley branch of the Bank of Marin during their regular business hours (10am-6pm; Monday – Friday).
This unique and thought provoking public show will feature artwork, poetry and various handcrafted art objects - all created by inmates in prisons from around the USA (P.A.T.H.), and prisoners incarcerated on death row at San Quentin State Prison (ArtReach). Art on display will also be available for purchase.
P.A.T.H. (Prison Arts Touching Hearts) was founded by U.S. artist, Leslie Lakes in 2015. Created to give a voice and validation to incarcerated artists (including inmate writers and poets) – those in the shadows and largely hidden to the public eye – while providing them with a vehicle to give back to the community in a meaningful and powerful way – through their art! This is accomplished theme based fundraising art exhibits. “The Power of Art – To Transform Lives” “I see P.A.T.H as a triple winner: it offers HOPE and PURPOSE to incarcerated individuals; helps other worthwhile community causes through P.A.T.H.'s art fundraising efforts; and makes beautiful artwork available and affordable to the public. [Together], we provide beauty, compassion and joy.” - Leslie Lakes, Dir.
ArtReach was founded in 2015 by UK artist, Nicola White to provide a platform for prisoners on San Quentin’s death row to exhibit their art and creativity. This is achieved both online and in a variety of London based exhibit venues and complementary art discussions. ArtReach seeks to humanize the plight of prisoners sentenced to death through their art. ArtReach believes that art and poetry has the power and ability to transform thinking, consciousness, behavior and lives. In doing so, it also helps to connect and engage these same artists with the outside world. Says one San Quentin death row artist: “Art created in prison is an expression of hope, provides a focus and purpose, and helps those who have often not had the chance to express themselves, to do so in an acceptable way from behind prison walls”.
“Art is the journey of a free soul” – Alev Oguz
For more information please contact: Leslie Lakes, Director P.A.T.H. P.O. Box 1702 Mill Valley, CA 94942 Prisonartstouchinghearts@gmail.com
A MarinLink 501 (c) 3 Non-Profit Project ] Member
Nicola White, Director of ArtReach:
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.
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.
“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
"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.
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 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."
Keep being creative and enjoy where your art takes you.
Artist, Mudlark & passionate about helping prisoners on death row to share their artwork and creative writing
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