Prison Renaissance program uses art to end cycles of incarceration from inside San Quentin

ByJason Beal Localish logo
Tuesday, March 30, 2021
Painting for prison reform
Reforming California's criminal justice system is a challenging issue with no easy solutions. One group is using art to create change from inside San Quentin prison.Incarcerated people use art to inspire discussions of prison reform from behind bars at San Quentin State Prison.

SAN QUENTIN, Calif. -- Serving more than 20 years of a 55-years-to-life sentence at San Quentin State Prison, Rahsaan Thomas uses his time in prison to accomplish a lot. In fact, he's curated an art exhibit almost entirely from his cell.

Thomas and a fellow incarcerated person, Juan Meza, along with a formerly incarcerated man, Emile DeWeaver, co-founded "Prison Renaissance."

"He came up with the idea. He just wanted a way to use proximity and art to make a difference," Thomas said of DeWeaver.

Prison Renaissance aims to use art and community to end cycles of incarceration, creating more proximity between the general public and incarcerated people.

The program provides a platform for incarcerated artists and writers to build personal and professional connections with people outside of prison and in their field.

Through Prison Renaissance, Thomas was given the opportunity to curate an art exhibit made of works by 12 incarcerated or formerly incarcerated people. The exhibit, titled "Meet Us Quickly: Painting for Justice from Prison," is being digitally hosted by the Museum of the African Diaspora.

"First of all, let me be honest, I don't know how to curate anything. I stumbled into this position," Thomas said. "I just use my untrained eye, like just really decide what's beautiful." He goes on to say, "Because I think art is beautiful. Even when it's describing something ugly, it's still beautiful."

The themes of the art pieces are varied. But each piece comes with a written statement by the artist, sharing their message and perspective in their own words. The exhibit is also meant to challenge the way we view people who are incarcerated.

"These are artists are saying 'I want to be seen,'" says DeWeaver. "I want to be seen as an artist not just an incarcerated artist."