Thursday, April 18, 2013

A Day of Reflection on Alcatraz Island

An inmate cell at Alcatraz prison featuring paintings, art supplies, a bed and a toilet. Proof that tight quarters are no match for an artistic spirit. ©DouglasNelsonPhotography

Today I spent a good part of the day on Alcatraz Island visiting this historic prison site and National Park. Alcatraz was probably the most famous federal prison in US history, it housed some of America's most notorious offenders from 1934 to 1963. Alcatraz offered a virtually escape-proof environment on a rocky island in the middle of San Francisco Bay. 

Inmates of Alcatraz had access to a library of 15,00 books and 75 popular magazine subscriptions. They could do artwork, write letters, and play stringed instruments in their cells. There was even an inmate band. There were several talented artists, including James Widner and John Paul Chase. 

Alcatraz Island as seen from Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco Bay ©DouglasNelsonPhotography

As I walked around the cell block, I noticed some amazing photographic opportunities as well as some very artistic architectural touches. This made me think that current styles in art and design have always had an influence on every day life. My Art History professor Michael Sickler at Syracuse University would be proud. :)

A very nice art deco style spiral staircase served as a way for the officers to access three floors of cell blocks inside the cell house ©DouglasNelsonPhotography

This simple but beautiful spiral staircase was how officers and staff accessed the three floors of prison cells within the Alcatraz cell house. The black color of the stairs offerers a total contrast to everything else in the building which was painted white, cream or neutral. 

Something that lent the cell house to some wonderful photographic images was the presence of natural light. ©DouglasNelsonPhotography

The cell house offered an amazing amount of natural light. The windows in the ceiling allowed daylight to flow into the building and illuminate it completely without lamp lighting at all today. Doug's photos came out amazing and he said that the lighting was just perfect. How important is natural light to us as painters? When I used to paint in the solitary confinement of my garage, I never really knew what I was missing. Now that I have an art studio with plentiful natural light (especially northern light) I truly appreciate the difference it makes. 

Light filters into the prisoner dining area and illuminates the floor. ©DouglasNelsonPhotography 

The dining hall was a very cool wide open space in comparison to the individual prison cells. Alcatraz was knows as a "maximum security, minimum privilege" prison. Food and medical care, however, were not considered privileges. They were necessities provided to all inmates. The food was prepared by inmate workers, under the supervision of correctional officers trained in food service management. I'd say that natural light was also a privilege for these inmates.

Yours Truly standing in a solitary confinement cell, demonstrating just how small each prisoner's space actually was. This cell had an additional door that closed over the front, making it completely black and devoid of light.  ©DouglasNelsonPhotography 

Even the solitary confinement cell was larger than the studio space I had in my garage when I first started painting. I was so excited to have my own space, with AC and a door that closed my mess off from the rest of the house, that size and lack of natural light didn't matter. I produced a LOT of work in the garage studio. 

An artistic photographic impression of me considering what it must have been like to be confined to such a small space for so long. ©DouglasNelsonPhotography 

I can't imagine living and working in such small quarters, even though I can collage on my seat back tray table in flight. I do know a local Orlando artist who rents a storage locker to paint in, no kidding. She has no AC, no heat, no running water there BUT she does have an overhead door, that lets in a LOT of natural light. Fern Matthews creates amazing and beautiful artwork in her storage space because she is passionate, and her desire to create art over rules any limitation her physical surroundings offer. 

The fire inside us as an artists cannot be put out by physical surroundings or limitations. Many artists I know don't even have a studio space they can call their own. Many mornings my brain races with thoughts, ideas, and visuals that cannot be contained, I'm up and out of bed by 4:30 or 5:00am in order to execute new ideas. Even the soft, comfortable, warm bed cannot envelope my creativity. 

What do you have to be artistically thankful for?

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