Art made by inmates created for fundraiser, on display in Sonoma

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.

“If you stop and think about it, everybody has been touched by cancer in some way,” McGinty said. “It doesn’t quit. It’s a terrible disease.”

Half of her dozen Relay for Life teammates are cancer survivors. The luminarias are especially personal and meaningful. When they’re lit at dusk after a day of music and entertainment, the event becomes introspective.

“The track becomes quiet. It brings people together. Some people just sit by their bags,” McGinty said. “It’s very moving. It’s comforting for people to see it and honor somebody that way.”

In past years, bags were decorated by volunteers, including children from the local Boys and Girls Club, Scout groups and relay teams. McGinty said her team reached out to correctional facilities to create a unique art show, offer inmates a way to help in the fight against cancer and help draw attention to the need for further research and services to combat cancer.

For Lahti and inmates in Vacaville, this effort is the first step in using art to help make amends for crimes, some of them heinous, committed against society.

“These are people who made mistakes and the majority recognize the choices they made did not turn out well for them and they are paying the price,” Lahti said. “They’re still people like the rest of us and some of them are talented, wonderful people. They loved doing (the bag project) and want to do more.”

One Solano inmate with a special talent for art rallied others to help. He and his brother are cellmates, both in their 50s and serving life sentences. Lahti likened his art to that of the late Thomas Kinkade, who painted realistic scenes of idyllic and pastoral settings.

“He’s sort of the inmate facilitator,” Lahti said.

McGinty and her teammates are displaying bags at the weekly Tuesday night farmers market in Sonoma Plaza, generating buzz about the upcoming luminaria art show. The Sonoma Valley Museum of Art also will host an exhibit of the artwork in August.

The Just Old Friends team also has blank bags for the public to decorate or attach photographs to for personal tributes. Dedications can be made in honor or in memory of loved ones on any of the prison art bags as well.

Lahti is hopeful inmates’ efforts will make a positive difference for others.

“It’s about the (cancer) victims and the survivors,” he told Solano inmates. “You’re doing this for them and not for you.”

Contact Towns Correspondent Dianne Reber Hart at

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