Some of the latest artwork to emerge in Sonoma Valley isn’t on canvas or part of a juried show. It’s on white paper bags, the type used to pack lunches.
The paper sack artists aren’t part of a trendy new class or experiment in self-expression. They are prison inmates, some serving life sentences, with the time and talent to create art for a cause.
Their original artwork, done in everything from crayons to acrylics, is part of an American Cancer Society fundraiser. The bags will circle a school track during an overnight Relay for Life event, each glowing by candlelight as a luminaria dedicated to someone battling or lost to cancer.
Collectively, the bags are both a tribute and an art show, an opportunity to raise awareness and funds for the fight against cancer.
A newly formed group within Vacaville’s California State Prison, Solano called Artists Serving Humanity decorated some 2,500 bags, each one checked by prison staff for inappropriate language, graphics or gang insignia.
The majority of bags passed clearance, many with tender images of angels, hearts, flowers, stars, clouds, crosses and hands clasped in prayer. Others show detailed landscapes of mountains, streams, sunsets, sandy beaches and palm trees — scenery far removed from inmates locked within the medium-security prison.
There also are abstracts, Teddy bears, words of hope and encouragement, and designs more typical of graffiti or tattoo art, each a one-of-a-kind tribute. Several were completed by inmates battling cancer.
“There are a lot of artists incarcerated and we want to give them a creative outlet that has positive implications for the community,” said Eric Lahti, the GED teacher at the prison who oversees Artists Serving Humanity. “It’s to help make up for all the harm they’ve done.”
This is an initial public effort for the new group of 100 inmate artists. Previously, artwork has been completed to brighten the waiting area for visitors.
Timing was serendipitous for Golly McGinty of Sonoma, captain of a team of longtime friends who’ve taken part in Relay for Life the past four years. Her team, Just Old Friends, is coordinating the luminaria effort, and reached out to 16 California correctional facilities for help decorating bags.
“We wanted to make this special, to get the prison art bags out there so it can be an art show,” McGinty said.
In addition to Solano, offers came back from state prisons in Corcoran, Soledad, Wasco and the Folsom Women’s Facility. A total of 3,500 bags with artwork from all five prisons will be featured.
“They’re unbelievable,” McGinty said. “Some are masterpieces.”
Bags include meticulous drawings, many shaded with graduating colors, although not every artist has equal ability or experience.
“We’ve got stick people, too,” McGinty said. Every effort was done voluntarily to help the fight against cancer.
Lahti said many inmates developed their skills from years, or decades, of doodling in cells or communal spaces.
“You spend years and years just doodling and you get pretty good at it,” he said. Some of the bags “are worth framing and putting on the wall.”
While inmates can’t benefit in any way from the artwork — even signatures weren’t allowed — some asked permission to dedicate bags to loved ones affected by cancer.