Review: On the Other Side of Freedom, ‘The San Quentin Project’ at the MAM

Mundanity becomes more behind bars, as seen through the multi-talented Nigel Poor’s “The San Quentin Project,” which will be exhibited at the Milwaukee Art Museum until March 10.

San Quentin Prison in California. WikiCommons photo.

San Quentin Prison in Marin County, California, has a lot of things that a lot of other prisons don’t. Its inmates have been producing a podcast since 2017. It has a drama program, running club and its own inmate-produced newspaper. Three inmates have received college degrees inside.

It also has an expansive photo archive: thousands of pictures that’d been tucked away in storage for decades. Now, a hundred of those photos have found the light and have been making the rounds at art museums for the past half-decade.

[alert type=white ]WHAT: The San Quentin Project photo exhibit

WHERE: The Milwaukee Art Museum

WHEN: Until March 10[/alert]

The simple/boring explanation of The San Quentin Project (which will remain on display at the Milwaukee Art Museum through Mar. 10, 2019) is that it’s a bunch of random leftover and nearly forgotten photos found in a prison basement. But when you line up these snapshots of life inside prison, we outsiders can start to pretend to understand what it’s like on the other side of freedom.

In short, The San Quentin Project asks its viewers to notice.

After being granted access to the disorganized archive, Nigel Poor — a visual artist who volunteers as a teacher and podcaster at San Quentin Prison — quickly realized the photos had to be shared with the inmate-students taking her photography class. Soon after, she turned them into the traveling exhibit.

“Many of the images are quite difficult. They were not taken with an artist’s eye or with the intention of creating a visual experience that is generous or transformative,” Poor wrote on her website. “These images were taken by correctional officers whose job was in part, to provide visual proof that an event took place. They are direct, blatant images that rely on the assumption that photography speaks the truth, that it has an unquestionable veracity.”

There’s a guy (probably a prison guard) catching a ball at first base in a baseball game. And then there’s a stabbing victim juxtaposed with an impersonal wedding cake. A prisoner in solitary is given lunch, and a man sits with a child (presumably his son) on the grass flanked by palm trees and a guardhouse. The left cheek of a guard whose initials appear to be W.H. is swollen and bruised.

And then some impressive mutton chops — like the facial hair, not the cut of meat.

There’s a guy receiving medical care in what appears to be a hospital. An evidentiary photo of a rope left above a graffiti that reads “no fear.” A guard stands at the end of a long hallway. A defiled painting of Jesus Christ. And who can forget the picture of a Native American inmate holding a 3-foot long bass captioned “Who’s really caught!”

There are lives in these photos.

A couple of the images have words etched into the ink, but most of them don’t. They’re hung on the MAM’s walls without much decoration.

No caption is needed to explain the knife scars in a man’s ribcage, or the fresh cuts across another’s wrists. It’s just still images of what life looked like in a prison in California between the 1930s and 1987.

“This exhibition seeks to not only invite audiences to discover how images of incarcerated populations have been codified, but also promote more critical skills in reading the cultural signs and power structures inherent within visual images,” said exhibition curator Lisa J. Sutcliffe of the Herzfeld Curator of Photography and Media Arts, Milwaukee Art Museum.

Back to school

The curators have remembered that how you experience an exhibit is just as important as its visual impact and appeal.

Outside the entrance to the exhibit (on the east side of the third floor of the MAM) are printouts of some of the photos that are displayed inside the doors.

Instructions invite visitors to markup (or “map”) the photos however they please using mini-golf pencils, making notes on everything they notice in the pictures.

It’s the same activity Poor gives to her imprisoned students. Copies of some of the students’ work can be seen hanging in one of the exhibit’s three rooms.

One of those students is Mesro Coles-El, who is serving a 35-to-life sentence at San Quentin for burglary as a result of California’s controversial “three strikes” rule.

“This project shows not only our observation skills at work, but our compassion and our driving need to be heard,” Coles-El wrote. “To know something I did is actually inside a museum is one of the greatest things in the world. Projects like this are important because so often people in prison are just simply forgotten.”

“Indian Pow Wow” mapped by Mesro Coles-El

To check out the San Quentin-produced podcast, Ear Hustle, go to or simply look up “Ear Hustle” wherever you get your podcasts. There are dozens of episodes already, and they’re all available to be listened to in-person at the San Quentin Project exhibit too.

Go See It: The San Quentin Project: Nigel Poor and the Men of San Quentin State Prison at the Milwaukee Art Museum, Bradley Family Gallery; Oct. 18, 2018–Mar. 10, 2019




Adam is a journalist who recently returned to his Wisconsin home after graduating from Drake University in December 2017. He interned with MilMag in the summer of 2015 and has been a continual contributor ever since. Follow him on social media @Could_Be_Rogan