Art Unbound: MoAD Releases the Art of San Quentin

by D. Amari Jackson

How do you get the public to be proximate with people in prison? Immediately art comes to mind. Art because it allows you to turn your most painful experiences into something beautiful. Art because even in prison, you still have freedom of speech, freedom of expression… Art because it can be mailed past the bars. Art because it’s attractive. Art because writing is an art you practice. It has to be art because it has always been art for you.”

—Rahsaan “New York” Thomas, The Art of Proximity

Gary Harrell, The Queen

By early August, the horror stories streaming out of San Quentin State Prison, California’s oldest correctional facility, had grabbed headlines for months. Thousands of prisoners were ill, some were dying. Inmate advocates, prison officials and politicians debated who was to blame for the institutional crisis. Many pointed back to the late May transfer of 200 inmates considered highly vulnerable to Covid-19 from the California Institution for Men to San Quentin by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.  Multiple headlines characterized the tragic situation at the facility as a “nightmare.”

Yet despite the fear, vulnerability, and powerlessness associated with the ugly crisis they found themselves in, 12 San Quentin inmates ultimately produced something empowering, therapeutic, and, yes, beautiful. 

Lamavis Comundoiwilla,
Mystery Found Its Harmony

Meet Us Quickly: Painting for Justice from Prison is a new, online exhibition presented by the San Francisco-based Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD). Curated by San Quentin inmate Rahsaan “New York” Thomas, co-host and co-producer of the Pulitzer Prize-nominated podcast, Ear Hustle, the digital exhibit offers 21 works by 12 incarcerated artists along with Thomas’ compelling essay, “The Art of Proximity,” a timely statement on the meaning of art behind bars. Recently, in a documented conversation with an exhibit partner, Thomas offered the following on the project and his chosen theme:

“I pray this event shows the public the power of working with people in prison, and encourages more people to get proximate to incarcerated people. I learned about proximity from Bryan Stevenson, when he came to speak at San Quentin State Prison. I sat in the chapel, eager to hear the author of Just Mercy give me solutions to fixing the criminal system. He mentioned getting proximate to the problem in order to solve it. His words resonated. Finding ways to be proximate with the public became my first step to stopping mass incarceration.”

Make skeletons dance by Tafka Clark

“Bryan Stevenson was right,” continued Thomas. “I am accomplishing so much from prison through working with people who reach past the bars and into my heart, mind and passion. Through proximity, we can build relationships that chip away the walls of mass incarceration.”

The exhibition—part of a series developed in partnership with Flyaway Productions, Prison Renaissance, Bend The Arc Jewish Action, and CounterPulse, and made possible in part by a grant from The Creative Work Fund—includes ink drawings, acrylic paintings, linocut prints and collage. Each work is accompanied by an artist statement. 

Ruth by Bruce Fowler

“The opportunity to amplify the voice of Rahsaan Thomas and of incarcerated artists, and to design and produce a forum on the crucial challenge of mass incarceration, provided a way to bring together our mission to create dialogue around difficult topics, and to showcase contemporary artists of the African Diaspora in a way that was new for MoAD,” explains Elizabeth Gessel, Director of Public Programs for MoAD. Since 2005, the San Francisco-based art museum has advanced a mission that “celebrates Black cultures, ignites challenging conversations, and inspires learning through the global lens of the African Diaspora.” Though the museum is currently closed to the public, additional information on the exhibit is available at MoAD’s website at


Sign up for our free email course on how to begin your collection.

Would you buy stock in BAIA if you could? Well we invite you to join us in becoming a monthly supporter, starting at just $3 a month YOU become a stakeholder and begin to help us transform lives through art. We are growing the BAIA team and will use your contributions to hire more team members for the purpose of creating more educational and marketing resources for schools and universities about African American artists both past and present. Such art initiatives and educational programming like Blacklite with Steve Prince, Relating to Art with Dr. Kelli Morgan, and BAIA BITS would not be possible without the ongoing support of our Patreon members. Please consider becoming a monthly Patreon member today!

Review our list of rewards for becoming a BAIA Patreon / patron supporter. Your monthly contribution has lasting benefits. — “What will your legacy be” – Dr. Margaret Burroughs

Thank you new and recurring monthly Patrons

Deloris and Eddie YoungEsther Silver-ParkerEugene FoneyZadig & Voltaire, Petrucci Family Foundation Collection of African American ArtNational Black Arts Festival, Dr. Leslie Fields, Jim Nixon, Dr. Michael Butler, Matthew Putman, Grant HillFrank FrazierHouston Museum of African American CultureJoan Crisler, Dee Greer, March on Washington Film Festival, Danny Jenkins, Deborah L. McCullough, Ashlee Jacob, John and Melanie Guess, Tricia Konan, Michael Brinson, Dr. A. Holloway, Rosie Gordon-Wallace, Jeanette D Adeshote,  Ja-Na Bordes, Rev. Anita Marshall, Tricia Konan, Robin King, Kerri L. Forrest, Nan, Thomas E. Rodgers, D. Lacy, Jeffery Washington, Brenda Larnell, Helen Oyekan, Jeffery Washington, Letashia Mosbey, Marian Darlington, Roslyn Valentine, Vyonne Diva, Ednarina Blake, Phyllis Stephens, Devera Redmond, Reginald Browne, Carla West, Beatrice, Longshore, Abimbola Thompson, Barbara Johnson, Beverly C Smith, Deborah R. Moore, Dr. Skyller Walkes, Ednarina BLAKE, Garr Parks, Gerald Carrington, Jae M, James B Wingo, Jocelyne Lamour, Kevin Smokler, Marion Zweig, Mary Ali-Masai, Michael J. Todd, Nan, Reg Pugh, Shannon DeVaney, Thomas E. Rogers, Tonya Pendleton, D Lacy, Noreen Winningham, Mason Archie, Jill Scott, Cari Jackson Lewis, Patrick Stewart, Rachel Corbray, Cecilia Winters-Morris, Chris Van Loan Sr., Romaine Roberts, Michael Jacobs, K.L. Martin, Gale Ross, Manuelita Brown, Annette, Jamal Love, Glenn Isaac Sr, M. Rasheed, Angela Williams, Dana Todd Pope, Terese L Hawkins, Mark Everett Sanders, Kirby L. Coleman, Harold Moore, Fredric Isler, Dr. R. Locke, Queen Brooks, Charles Bibbs, Diana Shannon Young, Dr. Yonette Thomas, M Belinda Tucker, Karen Y House, Runez M Bender, Duke Windsor, Cheryl Odeleye, Stephen Bennett, Shawn Rhea, Ethnie Weekes, Paul Robinson, Janice Orr, Patricia D Dungy, Jocelyn Benita Smith, Joan L. Ward, Garr Parks, Pamela Carter, Carlton Cotton, Diane R Miles, Jean Ann Durades, Luthetis Carey, Susan Ross, Harry F Banks, Shelia McNair, Lorna Conley, Shelley Byrd, DeLores M Dyer, Stefanie Fe Steele, Marjorie Hammock, Celestine Hinnant, ALKEBU LAN IMAGES Bookstore, Deborah Paige-Jackson, Desiree Dansan, Karen Pinzolo, Sonia Spencer, James Whitten, Shelley Danzy, Linda Eaddy, Wilhelmina Barker, Dorothy Massey, Annie Cheffers, Maddy Markland, Kaileigh Nelson, Kellyn Maguire, Cory Huff, keishua, Megan LaCroix, Sara Friesen, Desirée Stroud, Madison Taylor, Nina Marie, Mina Silva, Whitney, Toni Wendel, S F, Claire Sig, Isabel Engel, Sarah Drury, Elizabeth DeBunce, Hannah Diener, Diane Hughes, Petrina Burkard, Laura Di Piazza, Lisa Dunford Dickman, Jocelyn Greene, Cheryl B Blankman, Nicole Farley, Mitchell Shohet, Samiur Rashid, Sarah Rooney, Marina Kovic, Lloyd Goode, Sara, Pearlie Taylor, Lorna Doone, Ashley Littlefield, Monika Pi, Alison Deas, Carla Sonheim, Nicole Bruce, Brenda Keith, Louise berner-holmberg, Tellis, Pamela Hart, Kim Walker, Jessica Beckstrom, Franklin Jackson, Christina Levine, Curtis Morrow, jacki rust, Sarah Caputo, Freda Davis, cdixon06, Hollis Turner,  Laura Pereira, Danni Cerezo, Cooky Goldblatt, Claudia Bell, Gwen Ruff, Teri L Lewis, Emily Hegeman Cavanagh, Judith Bergeron, Suzette Renwick, Beverly Grant, Kathleen Turner, Linda B. Smith, Joy Peters, Jea Delsarte, Reginald Laurent, Rita Crittenden, Michele C. Mayes, Dr. Sandra Boyce Broomes, Dr. Darlene White, Caitlin Charles, Jean Gumpper, Sade Benjamin, Eddie Santosh, Patricia Hassell, Ayoka Chenzira, Marie L Johnson, Georgia F Lyles, Morris Howard, AnnaTheLoon, C Harris, Rachael horner, Emily M, Anneke Schwob, Timothy Gandley, Petrina Burkard, Wren Mckinley, Wanda Baker-Smith, Joyce A, Bill and Deborah Nix, Sharmon Jane Hilfinger, Caryliss R. Weaver, Francene Greene, Julia Turner Lowe, Judith Hamilton, Ebony English, Alisa R Elliot,  Charlotte Bender, Edwina King Diva E, Kim Dubois, Raven Burnes, Kevin and Tracy Burton, Bridgette McCullough Alexander, Marnese Barksdale Elder, Amy Peck