Artist is a prisoner of fate

Times Staff Writer

His masterpiece has been on display for decades in a place no one wants to visit, admired by a rough crowd of critics who study its beauty and nuance for years on end -- or until the parole board lets them out.

Alfredo Santos was a two-bit hood when he landed in San Quentin State Prison in 1951 for selling heroin. But he left his mark on the state's oldest prison by painting a collection of nearly 100-foot-long murals in the inmate cafeteria, a flowing picture book of California's history.

These extraordinary works have won praise from the few experts who have seen them, but for years no one knew who the painter was. Santos, embarrassed by his time in San Quentin, kept silent.

He is 80 now, seeing his wildly prolific and unprofitable art career in the rearview mirror. He shuffles from one shabby San Diego rental to another, scraping by on $800 a month in Social Security. He can't afford art supplies, so he draws graceful portraits on upside-down magazine ads as he tries to figure out what to do next.

"I'm the worst businessman in the world," Santos said. His white goatee is carefully trimmed, his shirt pockmarked by unattended cigarettes. "I gave a lot of my work away. Lost so many. Got ripped off. That's what happens to artists. . . . I always said I'm not going to become famous until after I'm dead."

That's what some collectors who have been picking up his old work for pocket change are betting on.

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Santos was born in San Diego, but spent much of his childhood in Tijuana. He gravitated to art early. By the age of 8, teachers were taking note of portraits he had drawn of classmates. His father, a carpenter, taught him woodwork.

Santos also was a troublemaker. He got tossed out of high school for hitting a teacher. He enrolled in a San Diego art school, but also smuggled illegal immigrants into the United States. He got arrested and spent 18 months in federal prison.

"I was leading two lives," he said.

When Santos entered San Quentin on the heroin charge, he immediately caught a break. A leg injury landed him in the prison infirmary, where a sympathetic doctor took a liking to the young artist. He advised Santos to keep a low profile.

"He said, 'Kid, play it cool. Don't make any noise.' So I didn't make any noise," Santos said. "The first two years I was there, all I did was do art and read, do art and read. I had two cells to myself -- one for me, one for my materials."

Santos was assigned the job of filling the cafeteria's blank walls in 1953 after winning a prison art competition. He worked at night for more than two years, aided by two inmate helpers who moved scaffolding, and overseen by a single guard.

When Santos finished, the warden thanked him for dressing up the chow hall. Santos was paroled after serving four years and returned to Southern California, where he found work knocking out caricatures of tourists at Disneyland. Later, he opened a gallery in San Diego and embarked on a long career as a fine artist.

And a fine artist, Santos figured, shouldn't have a rap sheet.

Today, a scrape with the law might give an artist a boost, a dose of street cred that distinguishes him from the dilettantes, an edgy story to tell over cocktails at a gallery showing.

Did I mention I did time in San Quentin? Let me tell you about my murals. . . .

Santos told no one.

"I was ashamed. It was something to keep secret," he said. Who would rent him a studio if they knew about his incarceration. "It would be bad for business."

As the years passed, the story behind the unsigned murals disappeared from San Quentin's institutional memory.

"When they were done, it wasn't seen as important to know who painted the murals," said Lt. Sam Robinson, San Quentin's spokesman and a former death row guard. "They were done as a prison work project just to dress up the walls."

In the mid-1990s, local historians digging into San Quentin's rich past began asking: Who painted the murals? Santos tried to answer that question a few years later when he called the prison and asked if he could see his work once again.

Vernell Crittendon, San Quentin's spokesman at the time, hung up on him.

"I thought he was just a criminal," Crittendon said. "And I'm not letting a criminal into the prison unless he has an invitation from a judge."

In 2003, Santos was finally identified as the muralist, a story corroborated by retired guards who had served as models for characters. Crittendon invited Santos to San Quentin, where he was feted and given an honorary key to the joint. He provided prison officials with another mystery by taking responsibility for only four of the six murals. Who did the other, decidedly more crude paintings is unknown.

"It was nice," Santos said. "There was a big buffet. I was a celebrity for one night."

If a prison hosting an art event seems odd, think again; San Quentin may be one of the nation's most improbable art museums.

Framed oil and watercolor paintings line the walls of the administration building, and murals are scattered throughout the ancient fortress. California highway scenes from the 1940s adorn a stairway in the infirmary. When a holding tank was recently remodeled, workers were shocked to discover a rendering of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel fresco underneath a false ceiling that was probably done in the 1920s. A mural featuring aircraft and ships is enjoyed by a select few on death row.

"Prisons built today are really generic. They don't have the canvas space to create what we have here," Robinson said. "We have new work going up all the time. There are a lot of talented people here."

But the Santos murals remain the prison's piece de resistance.

The dining hall is an unappetizing mess of peeling paint, rusty girders, plastic furniture bolted to the floor and windows that look as if they haven't been cleaned since the 1930s when the place was built.

Seeing the murals for the first time is a startling and incongruous experience. Portions are marred by water damage and flaking. Here and there a con seeking immortality has scrawled his name. But given the environment, it's astonishing how well-preserved they are.

Years ago, the dining hall's skylights were covered to protect the murals from sun damage. In the 1960s, a coat of lacquer was applied, and it turned the paint from red to brown. (Santos was allowed only one color; officials feared inmates might steal paint and dye their clothes in an effort to escape.) The discoloration gave birth to an enduring jailhouse legend that the artist used coffee grounds and shoe polish.

"He took nothing and made something out of it," said inmate Dave Davenport, 27, a parole violator who works in the cafeteria. "He had a hell of an imagination, that's for sure. I think he's a genius."

The murals are jammed with images depicting California's transformation from wilderness to mid-20th century industrial powerhouse. Indians and the Gold Rush flow into agriculture, oil, Hollywood, aviation and freeways. A San Francisco streetcar and the Golden Gate Bridge share space with the Hollywood Bowl and the Coliseum. Ironworkers erecting cities rub shoulders with Einstein and the atomic bomb.

There are homages to the World Wars, the Great Depression and the New Deal as well as a glimpse of the future that seems drawn from postwar B-movies: astronauts exploring a planet with erupting volcanoes, UFOs and an assembly line of robots. Tucked inside the murals are subversive images that inmates enjoy pointing out, including a pickpocket and a Peeping Tom.

Santos honed his craft on the job. Each mural is more technically sophisticated and surrealistic than the one before. What begins with one-dimensional textbook drawings ends with a modernism that has great depth of field. In one, a helmeted demon with warships coming out of its face extends its muscled arms like tree trunks. Giant elk tromp through mountains. Women cannery workers on puppet strings wield knives over fish. His final mural features fiestas in a cartoon style.

"When I came out of San Quentin I was sure I could make a living out of art," Santos said. "San Quentin is where I graduated art school."

His career took him from San Diego to Mexico, where he found success in Guadalajara, Acapulco and Mexico City.

He worked feverishly, producing thousands of paintings and wood sculptures in a variety of styles using whatever materials were at hand -- broken glass, bits of plastic, swirling knots extracted from planks of mahogany, tiny pieces of driftwood nailed together like a puzzle to create a three-dimensional scene.

"I consider myself the fastest artist in the world," Santos said. "When you work fast you drift into a different dimension. You're discovering and inventing at the same time. You're exploiting color and shadow. The faster I make them, the better they come out. I let my subconscious do the thinking."

He did landscapes and portraits, abstract pieces and nudes -- lots of nudes. Santos, married and divorced three times, was quite a ladies' man. His galleries were hipster hangouts where the party never stopped. He made good money, he said, but spent it fast.

His goal was to move to Europe, but Santos was advised that he first had to make it in New York. He consulted a fortuneteller in Mexico City before going north.

"She told me if I went to New York, they were going to rip me off and that I would end up in Baja someday broke and poor," he said. "I never should have gone to New York. The woman, she was right."

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Ross Altman was at his vacation place in the Catskill Mountains of New York two years ago when he visited an auction house. Amid the jumble of antiques and junk, the painting of a soulful Christ-like figure playing a violin caught his eye. The canvas was fashioned from planks of wood overlaid with newspapers. The paint turned out to be black tar.

"It spoke to me. It evoked an emotion," said Altman, 62, a rare gem dealer in Manhattan's jewelry district. He doesn't recall what he paid for the piece, but said it was less than $100.

The artist intrigued him, so he searched for Alfredo Santos on the Internet. Up popped links to some Bay Area news articles on his stint in San Quentin.

"When I found out that he was known -- had done this San Quentin mural thing -- my feeling was that any artist who is known, an original work of his has to be worth more than $100," Altman said. Within a year, he had bought 18 more Santos pieces.

Santos had landed in the small Catskills town of Fleischmanns in the mid-1960s after two disastrous years in New York during which a planned gallery showing was canceled after dozens of his best works were lost en route from Mexico.

The Catskills are thought to be littered with paintings and sculptures Santos produced over a decade of hard work -- and partying. Until recently, his works would pop up regularly at estate auctions and yard sales, where they could be snatched up for next to nothing.

"My walls are full of it," said Phil Speer of Fleischmanns, a UPS driver who owns 27 Santos pieces. "I bought it because he was a local guy and his stuff was nice and reasonably priced at the time."

But since Santos became known as the muralist of San Quentin, prices have risen sharply and availability has withered.

"I've heard people say they're holding onto them until he dies," Speer said.

He is no longer buying, but he recently sold a painting of a woman on a 5-inch-wide strip of wood for $850. He had paid less than $75 for it.

A gallery in Fleischmanns, Art et cetera, held a showing of Santos' work last summer -- his first in many years. "He is a hidden treasure of Americana," said John Mulloy, who owns the gallery with his wife.

They flew Santos out to New York and paid him a small stipend. He got a cut from the sale of his recently done sketches on upside-down magazine ads.

But Santos had no claims to a couple of pieces that went for more than $1,500, many times what he was paid for them a generation ago.

"At one point he asked me: 'What's in this for me?' " Mulloy said.

The answer was painfully obvious.

Santos believes he will end up exactly where the fortuneteller predicted he would -- broke in Mexico.

Last month, he was forced to move from a room in a shabby rental home to a downtown San Diego flophouse. Santos sized up his options: Cabo or Cancun? Maybe Puerto Vallarta. He could set up shop on a sidewalk and with his newfound reputation sell drawings to tourists.

"It's too late for me to make any money," Santos said. "But at least I'm finally being recognized. It's proof that I existed."

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mike.anton@latimes.com

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