The San Quentin Project: Nigel Poor and the Men of San Quentin State Prison follows the evolution of artist Nigel Poor’s (b. 1963) social art practice and her collaboration with the men incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison in Marin County, California. The exhibition features visual documents made during this collaboration as well as photographs from the prison’s own archive.
In 2011, Poor began volunteering as a professor for the Prison University Project, a nonprofit organization that provides higher education at San Quentin State Prison, a minimum-maximum facility that currently houses more than four thousand men. The San Quentin Project evolved from Poor’s experience teaching visual literacy and the history of photography at the prison. In those courses, she asked her students to complete “mapping exercises,” an activity where the men would react to photographs made by notable artists, formally analyze the images, and creatively explore their meaning. Poor eventually incorporated pictures from the prison’s historical archive into her classes, offering her incarcerated students a chance to respond to, refute, and translate these photographs. The men's distinctive interpretations offer viewers an opportunity to understand more about each individual and how he sees the greater world through the photograph. The San Quentin Project provides a unique opportunity for audiences to consider the role of art and the power of narrative, to discover how images of incarcerated populations have been codified, and to promote critical skills in reading the cultural signs and power structures inherent in visual images.
The exhibition includes nearly thirty mapping exercises that the men of San Quentin made in collaboration with Poor. It also presents photographs from an uncataloged archive of thousands of four-by-five-inch negatives made inside the prison from the 1930s to the 1980s, which Poor was introduced to in 2012. Finally, it features a listening station with select episodes of Ear Hustle, a podcast that evolved out of her courses, which features stories of life inside prison, shared and produced by those living it.