Interviewsand Articles


Richard Kamler - The Table of Voices, Feb. 2011: An Art of Engagement Part 2

by Richard Whittaker, Aug 10, 2011



I met Richard Kamler at a party. Most of the party-goers had been on the program at the 2010 Bioneers Conference in San Rafael, CA. Many were also listed in the Women's Environmental Art Directory. Looking around, I saw only two or three familiar faces and, intent on making new acquaintances, I found myself chatting with one person after another. Among them was an older man, slight of build, who was particularly easy to talk with. After awhile, I realized I'd heard about him before: Richard Kamler.
     Didn't he have a radio program in San Francisco where he talked with artists? A friend had once suggested I contact him thinking we would hit it off, especially since we both interviewed artists. But I hadn't followed up. And now here we were.
     He was no longer doing the radio program, he told me. And I also learned a little about his work in prisons with inmates on death row, and other projects. He used art as a way to engage in real-world issues. Some of what I heard was hard for me to imagine. Several of his stories were so compelling I asked if we could meet again to talk at more length. Yes. He would be happy to do that. And we did, in fact, meet for an interview. But after I'd left, I felt there was much more to talk about, and a week later we met again. This is our second conversation... 

Richard Whittaker:  You taught art at San Quentin for three years. Did you go in every week?
Richard Kamler:  I went in two nights a week. What I had was an art class, three hours, I think. This was in the 1980s. I taught art to these guys. There were ten or twelve students. Sometimes guys would come in a little bit out of sorts, or spacey, or loaded or drunk. 
RW:  Prisoners?
RK:  Yeah. But as long as they weren't disruptive, I didn't care. And then we just made art. In that context, we began to be friends. They were very interested in my life. What was it like to be an artist and how did I survive? What was a little guy like me doing with "impact drawings"?
RW:  "Impact drawings"?
RK:  Those were the drawings I showed you - of people falling down with the meridian lines. They were curious about that. Did I actually kill those people? They assumed, you know.  
     So I explained it to them and they couldn't figure out where to put me. It took about a year for us to get together. After that, it was like hanging out with anybody. 
    During that first year, I began to change - dramatically. I began to really think about art, and in a much different way than I did when I went to school. I began to see art as something that really could reveal things, reveal inner aspects about one's life - and certainly that could heal. 
RW:  How did the healing part become clear?
RK:  They used to have inmate exhibitions right outside the east gate. So when we were doing work for an exhibition, what I asked them was "Do something about your own experience." And that took a while. There is one prison drawing that, if you've seen it, you'll see hundreds. It's a drawing, highly detailed, of what they call a rig: hypodermic needle, matches and a spoon, okay? And there will be barbed wire on it and sometimes a very sexy woman with really high spike-heel shoes and an uplift bra. They all make that drawing. 
     I'd say, I know you can draw that, but show me something from your own experience as well. That was when things started to get revealed. How they would make color then was they would scratch off, from National Geographic - I brought in lots of magazines - they'd scrape the color off the page with their finger nails and spit saliva into it and mix it up to get color. 
RW:  You mean you weren't bringing in supplies?
RK:  Right. I couldn't bring in a lot of stuff. So in that process, things began to come out. And I would sort of push them in that direction, asking what the drawings were about.
     "This was about the fight I had with my father." "This was about when I was a kid and I didn't know where to live." "This was about my first birthday party."
     So it began to expose these things. And that was important because they began to trust me. My own bias is that if you get something out in front of you and then take a look at it, then healing can happen. 
RW:  How did you get the sense that there was a healing in this process?
RK:  From what they said, and what they said is, "I never thought of that before. I never really thought what it felt like when I was being pushed around by my big brother, or my father." Or "I was ten and had nobody that night to make me dinner." They would tell me stuff like that, but it took about a year, year and a half. Because in the beginning, I was just some guy who came in to do art. 
RW:  So after you were getting drawings that reflected real moments and you asked them about it, did emotion come up? 
RK:  What came up was individual stuff. Some would just tell me like the weather - it's overcast today. Some would get really intense and really look right into me, "This kind of bullshit really happened! This motherfucker..." And they'd go on with that.
RW:  Real anger.
RK:  Yeah. I'm not a psychologist and I didn't want to go down that road. I could have gotten into trouble because I didn't know what I would be doing. So I'd just say, "Wow, I get it." Then I'd come back and tell them experiences I had when I was a kid. So we made a common ground.  
    And I began to think about those times without really understanding what I was thinking about. Then as time went on, I became a prison abolitionist, which I still am, politically. After that I felt I couldn't work there any longer. The warden was dangling the programming and saying, "Look at all the great programs we have! Why don't you give us more money so we can build more prisons?" So, like other people, I felt that I was being used, and I actually quit working at San Quentin. 
     Then I got a job working in the county jail in San Bruno doing exactly the same thing - teaching art down there and going through the same process. There was a little more freedom of movement for the inmates down there. They helped me install those hundred buffalos down there; they helped bring them down, stake them to the ground and paint them. They worked on that project with me. Then after two or three years, a similar thing happened - although I have to say, even to this day, I really respect Hennessey a lot, the sheriff of San Francisco. But I thought, "This isn't working."
RW:  So how wasn't it working?
RK:  You can't pull someone out of the community and stick them in a prison cell about four feet three inches wide and about eight feet long and expect him to get better. You can't do it. It's impossible! There needs to be some connection with community, with what people involved with it call restorative justice. You have to have the victim, the offender and the community involved and a way to balance these forces. 
     So I went to work at Milestone, a recovery center for recently released parolees. I worked there, again, as an artist in residence for about three years and really liked it. Because here were people now who were living in the community, living outside of the prison institution, but still under some control of the probation department. Here they were learning skills; they were learning how to - it doesn't sound like much - but they were learning how to write a resume, how to open up a checking account. They were learning how to do a job interview. 
     That whole time of being involved directly that way, which was nine or ten years, really impacted how I wanted to work. And the most crucial thing was where I wanted the work to be.
RW:  Where it would be seen?
RK:  The venue. Yeah. 
RW:  Were you a professor, art faculty at USF then?
RK:  No. I was living on grants a lot. I didn't come to USF until eleven years ago. I was doing adjunct teaching, one class. I taught at the S.F. Art Institute for about three years. 
RW:  Did you come up through the art schools and get an MFA, that sort of thing?
RK:  No. I went to Berkeley. I got a master's degree in architecture, but I never intended to practice architecture, I wanted to learn how to build big things. How do you build something that's sixty feet high and complicated that won't fall down? 
RW:  Did you ever build anything big like that?
RK:  I built a large cardboard piece that was a bi-cubic dodecahedron that was about 30 feet in diameter and maybe 30 tall. 
RW:  That's a pretty big structure. You'd have to have scaffolding,
RK:  Yeah. The whole thing. I was interested at one point in what they call "packing cells." I was involved with a lot of Bucky Fuller's ideas, which I think were great. I got involved with all that. I'd pick up an adjunct job over here. Do some plumbing over there. Once in a great while I'd sell some art. 
     So I had to make a decision. How am I going to live? And my interests were in practicing a socially engaged form of art. I didn't know that phrase at the time. In fact it was interesting - people would say, "Oh, it's just Kamler doing political stuff," and dismiss it because it was "just political." So I made a living from these different things. Then I decided I wanted to teach because I didn't want to get involved with the commercial gallery world.  
  So I worked and got a job up at UC Davis where I taught for three years. Then I left and got a job teaching for three or four years at SFAI. Then in about 1998 Tom Lucas, who was trying to start an art department at USF visited me. He knew about what I did and wanted the department to have a socially engaged quality. So he said, "Why don't you come up to USF? We'll start an art department there."
     I asked him, "Would I get a health plan?" When he answered "yes," I said, "Where do I sign?"

RW:  So what were the things about socially engaged work that made it so compelling for you? 
RK:  The opportunity to be really engaged in the world in ways that I could see could impact communities.
RW:  Where, specifically, did you see such engagement occurring? 
RK:  I did a series of pieces in the early 80s called Maximum Security. There were several installations. Each looked at a particular aspect of the prison system and how it related to the larger world. What are the economics of the prisons? What class benefits from prisons? I looked at the sociology of the prison population. I looked at the physical qualities. I looked at every aspect of the prison system and related that to what it was like outside. 
     I initiated what I called community conversations bringing together people who could dialog around these issues: ex inmates, families and so on. How could we engage ourselves socially to see if we could change it? 
RW:  So there was the hope of finding a better way - what could help, restore and heal? 
RK:  What I feel can restore and heal - and I hear so many times that it's naive - is art. It can really do it! And how it can do it is - if is you're sitting watching the bombs go off on tv, that's a mediated experience. What I want to do with art is to break that down, to engage people to become part of the piece. 
RW:   But there needs to be more than art, right? - like you were saying with Milestone
RK:  Of course. I think I mentioned Vaclav Havel the last time we talked. What he did was bring artists to the table with all the other people. 
RW:  But art has this wonderful potential to really engage someone to the core.
RK:  And that's exactly why it has to be at the table. That's what excites me and interests me! 
RW:  You can get the whole person to appear, right?
RK:  Right. I know what I'm doing is art. And I also know that somebody has to understand what happens when toxins are being put in the air, when we're putting plastic food on the table and so on. I also understand there has to be the art which is dealing with the spirit and the soul as well. So that's where I come in. 
RW:  Once I decided to go out and ask regular people what they thought about art. I took a tape recorder and people were willing to talk to me. After a while I noticed that the language they used was the language of spirituality. I saw that everyday people still had a kind of belief in art. What you're saying reminds me of that. 
     But if I brought the word "religion" up, all bets were off: no, no, no. If I said "soul," that was still okay. Language can get us in trouble, but "soul" is in the realm where religion is, you know? The whole spectrum is there. 
RK:  Yes. That's why for me, the metaphor of the table is so crucial. It brings all these various aspects together. So people might be screaming at each other, but they're not shooting. That's a huge step! And that always struck me. 
     When I looked at all these various aspects, even in the late seventies, of what prisons were doing - and what that kind of mentality that built these things was doing - I saw there was a need, not just a role, but a need for the creative imagination. So I just began to look at those things and for ten, eleven, twelve years, I did all kinds of stuff. Then I figured I'd done it all. Finished. Had nothing more to say here. But many people told me, you never talked with victims. 
RW:  Before you got to that point had you established relationships with people on death row? 
RK:  Oh, sure. 
RW:  Now how many did you establish relationships with? Tell me about that. 
RK:  I'd say ten, a dozen, something like that. One is dead. I had ongoing relationships with three, four. One got out.
RW:  From death row, got out?
RK:  Yes. This was a really unique time. In 1976 Rose Bird abolished the death penalty. Then, of course, she was booted off the court. But then some worked their way out. One guy I know did work his way out. I wonder if I showed you that piece back on the wall? This carved eagle. 
RW:  You did. It was pretty impressive.
RK:  As far as I know he lives up in Seattle. He had an enormously powerful story. The guy who he had shot didn't die, but became a paraplegic. This paraplegic actually forgave David, publicly. 
     I remember thinking, "Could I do that?" If someone killed, say, my son, I think I'd just go kill the fucker. But here's somebody who did that.
     So Robert, the guy who did the miniatures I showed you - was someone I would talk with on the phone at least once a month. I had a good relationship with him and became the executor of his art. When he died I took his work down to his brother who lived in Bakersfield.
     There's another man on death row right now who I'm really close to. His name is Guy. I have a file downstairs with this many of his letters [holds fingers apart]. I'm still in contact with him. In fact he was in the rubber room - a place where people freak out. 
     His neighbor in the cell next to him, Manny, was a Vietnam vet. When he was executed, my friend freaked out and was in the rubber room for eighteen months. 
RW:  And he came out with his sanity? 
RK:  Yes, he's very sane. I think he should be on the street because he could make a contribution. 
RW:  So in the course of your relationship with these people on death row, is there ever any reflection on the crimes they've committed?
RK:  I have a different attitude than most people. I'm not too interested. I know personally what they've done because many of them were on my Table of Voices Project. David was. Guy was. 
RW:  So you would talk with them, then.
RK:  I would ask four questions. "What did you do? What were the details that got you?" And I would probe. So I knew the details of what they did. But I'm not the judge. 
RW:  No. I was just interested in what was coming from them.
RK:  Most of them feel this unimaginable sense of shame for what they did. With almost every single one of them it happened when they were young men. Not all of them. Some of them have spoken with the victim's family, with the mother. 
     If the mother wants to come and visit them, they can refuse that. Some of them refuse that because it's so traumatic. They can't deal with it. But some of them have. 
     I do stay in touch with some of the victims. I tried to get one of them a job at USF. She's a probation officer. I spoke with her a lot. Her son was on his way to college and someone came to their front door and shot him. 
RW:  In those cases where the killer did meet with the mother, what did you learn about that? 
RK:  I learned [sighs] - I have a very difficult time with this concept of forgiveness. 
RW:  Yes. I was curious about that.
RK:  I had a personal experience, which I'll share with you. But what I do know is that almost everybody, both the people inside of prison and the victim's families, are religious people - really to a fundamentalist degree, almost. They are firm believers in forgiveness. And that gives them the strength to do what they have to do. 
RW:  You mean the killer as well as the victim?
RK:  Both. They believe deeply and I understand. They have to have something to hang onto because what's happened is so horrific. But not many of the victim's mothers or family members are willing to meet with the guy in prison. Many still want the guy to be killed. I'm not surprised. It's against the law of nature, the old people go first and then... Things got turned around here. Backwards. But for some reason, I have good boundaries. I can go into that kind of stuff and I'm not scared. 
RW:  Well, if you don't mind sharing your problems with forgiveness, I'd like to hear more because I think this subject shouldn't be glossed over as if we could just do it-oh, it's nice to forgive. If someone killed my daughter, where am I going to find forgiveness? I don't see where I'm going to find that.
RK:   No. You just want to go kill them.
RW:  Really. So I think it would be a disservice to minimize this somehow. 
RK:  Well, I had an experience where I almost killed somebody. I hit a pedestrian in Golden Gate Park. I drive a truck. I thought she was dead. She flew off and cracked down. Thank God I had a cell phone. I called 911. The blood was coming out of her head. [sighs] Anyway the cops and an ambulance came and they took her to the hospital. 
    Then, when she's in the hospital I felt I have to do something. I wanted to send her flowers, immediately. So I went to the flower store and ordered the flowers. It took me one hour to figure out how to sign the card. Then I called the hospital to see if she was alive. I lied on the phone. What do I say? "I'm the guy who hit her with his truck"? 
     Turned out she was a gardener for the city and had insurance. We were terrified they'd take our house and we didn't know what to do-all kinds of stuff. It went on and then I let it go. Then about a year and a half ago, Joya had my truck. She was sitting there in Golden Gate Park, when a woman walked up and asked, "Is your last name Kamler?"
     Joya says, "No, my husband's name is." And Joya looks at her and then asks, "Are you Janet?"  
     The woman said, "Yes."
     She told Joya she'd seen me on TV. When I did the billboard project I got a lot of publicity. And then she said something to Joya. She said, he looked like he was a good person [emotion comes up]. That still breaks my heart. So Joya asked, "Would you like to talk with him?"
     And she said, "Sure."
     A week or two after that interaction I went to the park where she works near the hall of flowers and parked my truck. I just hung around because she walks around taking care of the gardens. I waited about a half an hour and was getting ready to leave when I saw this woman walking towards me. I knew right away it was Janet. 
     I didn't know what to do. Should I reach my hand out? Should I hug her? What am I going to do? So she just came towards me and she said, "Oh, Richard, hi. I'm so glad to finally meet you." 
RW:  Wow.
RK:  [laughs] I'm thinking to myself, "I'm going to fall down. I'm going to faint." And so we start to talk. She said for the first year she was really angry at me. She is a spiritual person and has a spiritual practice in her life. And we talked. I told her I just didn't know what to do and that I had this enormous sorrow for what I did. She said, I forgive you. 
     When I heard her say that, I thought, so that's what it means
     I almost killed this person. It was an accident. And so then, when I was getting ready to leave, she reaches up and gives me this big hug. Every so often I visit her and we chat. So now I do understand forgiveness, you know? I mean, I don't know if I could do that.
RW:   But you've received it.
RK:   I've received it. So some of these guys, not many of them, some of these guys, parents - it's mostly all mothers, who want to go to death row - go there because they just need to see the person. Once in a great while - time is the crucial thing here - maybe after ten years, twenty, they can forgive. Those people are very special people - like Janet, a special person. 
     I don't think I'm that kind of special, but some of these mothers who go to visit the death row killers are special people. So those kind of things - I see them more as "material," that I could make something out of that would affect people. Which would have a possibility to effect change, to transform, to heal, reveal... I tell my students, you want to know what art is? It's heal, reveal or transform. That's it! 
RW:   Heal, reveal, or...
RK:  And/or transform. So that led to the Table of Voices. Can forgiveness come in there?
     My friend Guy was on "the table." He was concerned because his case was still hot. So he'd have to be careful what he said. Then after we made one recording, he said, "We have to do more." These are fifteen-minute sections. These would take me a month because you couldn't call back right away. Finally we got it all together and we did it that way. 
     Somebody else on the table was a guy named Michael Marcum (sp). He's now the assistant sheriff of San Francisco. When he was eighteen years old, he shot and killed his father. His father was abusive. It's no reason to kill your father, [laughs] okay? He ended up doing eight years in Folsom prison. Michael Hennessey, the Sheriff of San Francisco hired him as a CETA volunteer when he was released and Michael eventually worked his way up to became the assistant sheriff. The deputies in the county jails were very opposed to that. They'd be under the control of an ex-felon. They didn't want that. But he's an enormously special guy with great integrity. He was on both sides of the table. He was both a victim and a perpetrator. 
RW:  I'm guessing he would be well suited to being the assistant sheriff. 
RK:   Oh, God! Like a glove. 
RW:  To understand so much.
RK:   He understands so profoundly - the games they play, their need for education and training. He's actually someone I really love. 
RW:  In the spiritual traditions one runs across stories of people who may have killed people - even a lot of people - and then they realize something. Sometimes they even end up becoming saints. They've done a huge amount of bad, but become so transformed they do a huge amount of good. We don't have this model in our culture, but it does exist in some traditions.
RK:  No. When I was interviewing Michael for the Table of Voices, I went down to the old Hall of Justice and he said, "turn off the machine, will you Richard?" And I shut the machine off. "I don't know why," he said, "but I just feel so funny all of a sudden talking about this." And he'd talked about it for a thousand times. But because he was talking to me, and he knew I was going to make "art" with it, he wanted it to be right, whatever that meant. 
     So he became part of that Table. And I asked him, "What was it like, Michael, when you were a victim?" His father abused him for ages. Constantly putting him down and making him feel stupid and ashamed of himself. Then he was the perpetrator. It fit into both the Table of Voices and The Waiting Room.
     The Waiting Room was much more political. But the Table of Voices was something that I really - I mean I went to those meetings of parents of murdered children for close to two years. 
     It's a national organization; it's a community glued together by the most profound pain, the murder of a child. So I come as an outsider, as an artist.
     They understand that I'm not going to make paintings. But they don't really know what I do. I've explained it to them, but they don't know what this guy does. So they have to begin to try to figure out a sense of trust for me. I would go there and briefly say who I was and what I was doing and they would talk. I just began to listen to them. I have so many tapes of all these stories of these people. And that was like - this could make a difference. This Table of Voices could actually make a difference, a change. I'd gotten a couple of awards for that show. I got the award from the San Francisco Art Institute, the Adeline Kent Award.
RW:   I know that award. Richard Berger got it a few years ago.
RK:   Right. And then the project went from SFAI to Alcatraz. That's when it became part of this large contingent. Mimi Farina was part of it out there, Bread and Roses. So there was all this resonance happening out there based on this piece of art. I had grandmothers on the table. 
RW:   What do you mean? They were there to listen?
RK:   No. They were part of the project. One woman, (Jean O'Hara) became a public figure. Her son and his girlfriend were killed. She had to go through some changes and she eventually became on of the first volunteers in the victim/offender reconciliation program, which was based on my Table of Voices project. She went into jails and talked to prisoners about her experiences so they could see what they had done. You have to see it. 
RW:  Have you been present at any of these moments where the victim's mother is there?
RK:   No. It would be made nearly impossible for me to be part of that, without any connection to prison institutions except that I'm making art about it. But I could go when she was talking to twenty guys in a room about her experiences. What's so moving is that they see that somebody who has been impacted is now coming to talk with them.
     I mean, most of these guys, unless they're crazy, they've just made bad decisions. They fucked up. They lost their mind, lost their tempers, did something stupid. And now somebody is making that effort of coming to them.
    It's not easy even to get into a prison as a visitor. You have to go through all this stuff, wear the right pants, go through metal detectors and all kinds of shit. It takes a long time. When I taught there, sometimes I could hardly get out. It's an area where a door shuts in back of you, so you're in a room like this and a door hasn't opened up on the other side, a sally-port. So they keep you in there to make sure you're not taking somebody out under your arm, alright? So here are these people making that effort. 
RW:  This is all very intense. Last night I was telling my wife a little about your work and just talking about it, tears would come to my eyes.
RK:  I know. When I was intimately involved in Table of Voices my house was in enormous turmoil because many times, the victim's families would call me on the phone and accuse me of re-traumatizing them.
     And Joya is a mother. One thing she said to me that still resonates in my mind was, "If anything happens to our son, it's going to be your fault." Because I was opening up this huge can of worms! 
     And I was accused of being less than candid many times. Looking back on it, I really wanted to do this piece, the Table of Voices. I really knew it could be an important piece in terms of transformation. And maybe I was not 100% candid with some of the victims I spoke to. I'm not sure I could do that again. The Last Meals and the Last Statements, that was part of The Waiting Room - which was in Texas [big sigh] - we're going to need a break after these conversations. [after a pause we continue]
     The last statements were very profound because they actually also reflected religion. "God will forgive me." "I'm going home to heaven - or to hell." Sometime they'd be lengthy statements.
     I think I might have sent you a couple of drawings. I have all their last statements downstairs, maybe 217 last statements - what they actually said, and their last meal. Many people decline the last meal. I think I sent you one tray that just said, "Declined." There was nothing on it, an empty tray. 
      When I did The Waiting Room in 1999, that's when I really focused on the importance of the venue. When I decided I wanted to do a piece based on the visiting room - where I'd visit my friend in San Quentin - I wondered, where should I build this piece? Should I do it here in the Bay Area? It easier here. I have all the resources here. But then I decided to do it in Huntsville, Texas, which is the capital of state-sanctioned murder. The people of the state of Texas vs John Alvarez. Okay, the state is killing that guy. 
     Then it took me a year to figure out how to do it there. Where can I do it? Who is supporting me there? Is there a community there I can talk to? I eventually began to meet people down there. I got in involved with the Texas Moratorium Project, which is a project to try to put a moratorium on the death penalty in Texas. 
     I'm really obsessive [laughs]. I'm really focused and, when I decide I'm going to do a project, then I figure out a way to do it. I don't really listen to "no" too often. Which is a mixed blessing, I should say.  
   So I found all these people who could help me and eventually ended up building The Waiting Room. I couldn't build it in the prison so it was in the Sam Houston Memorial Museum.
RW:  So you did find a venue for it.
RK:  Oh, yeah, absolutely. I was committed to do it in Texas. In fact I had community conversations there, too, which were very, very provocative. The victim's right group came to the first community conversation when an abolitionist was speaking. There were about five in the front row and they began to rustle papers and eventually made a huge fuss and all walked out together.
    The piece traveled around the state. When it left Huntsville, it went up to Fort Worth/Arlington. There was a victim's rights group there that tried to shut the show down, too. 
RW: Have you talked with some of the victim's rights people?
RK:  Yes. 
RW:  How has that gone?
RK:  There's a group out here in the Bay Area called Citizens Against Homicide. I've been on their mailing list for ages. I used to speak with them all of the time and they were very distrustful of me. They said, "We know your agenda."
     In their newsletter they wrote about me saying this guy has spent his entire life trying to abolish the death penalty. We have to be careful with him. One of them, who I had a relationship with, her daughter was killed as a student up at Chico State. She could relate to me as a decent human being and I had enormous compassion for her. But when she wrote about me she said, "Don't trust him."
     There was one woman who - we almost got in to an argument about it, and I backed off. She's got the pain. She thought, "We have to kill this guy."
RW:  You mean the murderer.
RK:  Yes. 
RW:  Biblical, an eye for an eye. 
RK:  All of this stuff is. And what happens is that the state intervenes and tries to rationalize it in some way.
     If the state is going to be involved in it, there needs to be much more of a healing way than just a punitive way. I don't think anyone who kills someone should not be held accountable. You know what I mean? I'm not that stupid. If someone kills somebody, they need to be accountable! 
     What I'm saying is that when you stick somebody in a four-foot three by ten-foot cell for forty years nothing happens but a huge expense. I mean, I've had dinner with people who have been in prison for twenty years, okay? And even if I didn't know that person had been in prison, I would know they had been in some really dark place just watching how they eat. They're hunched over and constantly looking around. When I see that I know, "Oh, that person's been in prison."
    Just a year or two ago there was a show that I was part of here in the city, a dual show about prisons with Intersection for the Arts and SF State. There was a guy there who I had dinner with one night who had been in isolation for 22 years in Angola down in Louisiana. Twenty-two years! I didn't believe it! You know what I'm saying?
RW:  Yes. It's impossible to imagine that. What was he like?
RK:  Totally, totally, totally still. When I spoke to him, he would let the words go inside. I knew what he was doing, but if you didn't know him, you'd repeat the same words because you'd think he hadn't heard you. But no, he was used to just looking and studying.
     He would look at you and then he would say, "Well [pause] I'm thinking [pause] that maybe [pause] this [pause] should be [pause] in a different [pause] direction. He talked like that. So you just knew.
RW:  Did you ask him how he survived all those years in solitary? 
RK:  Did you ever hear of Jarvis Masters? 
RW:  No, I haven't.
RK:  He's a Buddhist here on death row in San Quentin. He wrote two books, the second one we just went to a book opening at Lit Quake last year, That Bird Has My Wings. Jarvis has been in isolation for over twenty years, also. How he survived was he learned how to meditate. He became a Buddhist, okay?
     The person who taught him that was another friend of mine who is a private investigator. She works on death penalty cases and is a Buddhist herself. She would go in and talk with Jarvis. She'd say, why don't you try this. It took him six or seven years. So he meditated.
     I think he might be getting off death row. But he's terrified to get off death row because he's not used to being around people. And another reason is, when you walk around the main line if you happen to just bump into someone, it could be cause for a fight. This other friend of mine, Guy, who I mentioned earlier, he's set up a life for himself in there. 
RW:  In prison?
RK:   Yes. He has a very active correspondence, a very active phone life. And he's been out on the street a total of maybe five years in his adult life. Maybe not even that much. He's been on death row for, I don't know, 25 years.
     When I did The Waiting Room down in Texas all of that was bubbling all the time, and what does this mean? And what are these last suppers you would get? So I would try to bring the details, like what did people order? - turkey, eggs, onion rings, pie, pizza.
     There's a guy who became the head of a program for the legal services for women prisoners with children. He was convicted under the felony murder provision; even if you didn't pull the gun, you're guilty. He did twelve years for that, but he's out now. 
RW:  So he's now the head of this legal services thing?
RK:  Right. Legal services for women prisoners. There's this whole community that I was very engaged with at a certain point. And reflecting on that now, it's like, "Wow, this was really an example of people who had really transformed their lives!"
     When your life gets transformed in prison, it's still pretty constrained. But when you come out, like Michael Marcum, who is assistant sheriff of San Francisco - it's unbelievable! And the man, Dorsey Nun, who runs a program for the legal services for women prisoners - all of that is what I wanted to include, if possible, in these art pieces. 
    So to get back to what I said earlier, that's what I mean by being engaged. How can all of that be used some way, for healing, for transformation? That's what I see as a direction for art, for the kind of art I want to practice.
Richard Kamler died Nov. 1, 2017.


About the Author

Richard Whittaker is the founding editor of works & conversations and West Coast editor of Parabola magazine.       


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