Artist William Noguera's preferred method is to fold a wool blanket on top of an upside-down five-gallon bucket. It supports his large frame as he pushes his mattress to the side. Bent over the bed frame, he lays down layer after layer of dots. From his drafting pen to the 20-by-30-foot Strathmore paper, the ink transforms a blank page to a hyperrealistic photo-image after hundreds of hours of painstaking labor.
He has the time to spare.
Four feet wide by 10 feet long, this artist's working space is utterly free from distractions. Precise scale drawings of it and the artist's descriptions show that it's free from pretty much everything except for a bed, a toilet, and a few sketchbooks. Those books contain the vivid dream images Noguera has transmitted from his internal landscape to paper during his 18 years on San Quentin's Death Row.
Resting his elbows on the bed frame, Noguera resembles an overgrown schoolboy intently working at his desk, but there is no schoolboy innocence in here.
Two yellow fluorescent wall fixtures give a harsh glow similar to institutional bathroom lighting. Depending on the season and the time of the day, ambient lighting may leak in from outside.
Although Noguera has been an artist his entire life, it was only after being incarcerated for the murder of his girlfriend's mother in 1983 that his art became instrumental to his sanity.
Noguera had never gotten along with his girlfriend Dominique Navarro's mother Juanita, and in the days prior to her death, neighbors reported, relations between the two were especially strained. After the death of her mother, Dominique stood to inherit her house in Orange County and a life-insurance policy. The jury decided that the murder was committed for financial gain, and sentenced 18-year-old Noguera to death in 1992 on one count of first-degree murder with deadly weapons: a martial arts tonfa and a wooden dowel. His 16-year-old girlfriend was charged with conspiracy to commit murder and first-degree murder, tried as a juvenile, convicted, and sentenced to the custody of the Youth Authority; her conviction was affirmed on appeal.
"Yes, someone got killed," Noguera says. "I was under the influence of anabolic steroids for competition in martial arts at the time, and for something that took possibly a minute I've spent 23 years of my life in prison. It's very tragic and I don't live a day without thinking about it. I'm very sorry it happened for everyone involved."
Noguera represents all that makes us uncomfortable in art. His work is inspired by dreams, angry ones. His passion is evident and entirely raw. "There's anger in my art," Noguera says, "But I'm searching for beauty." He also acknowledges that what people who view his work see, is actually bitterness. The man who sits on Death Row is really an art-world freak unschooled, untutored, and undisciplined but it is artists like him who can sometimes shape mainstream culture.
At San Quentin, surrounded by child molesters, rapists, and other criminals (which he says kills him inside) Noguera creates a private sphere through his art, which is quite literally his escape. Hunched over that bucket for 10 to 11 hours straight, Noguera retreats inside himself to a black-and-white world, painstakingly dropping his dreams, in ink, onto the page.
Without Cézanne's anxiety, without Van Gogh's mental tortures, and without his own anger, the artists' works would not have any meaning, he explains. And although the passion that drives Noguera's art is largely derived from the brutal surroundings he creates them in, he hopes viewers will "look beyond that and relate the anger and the tortured past to the beauty that is there in my work," he says.
"My art is not a luxury, it is a necessity," Noguera says. Each day as he wakes up, something inside him is begging to get out, and he must work. "If I don't create, I can't function," he explains.
Barely discernable from a black-and-white photograph until closely viewed, Noguera's pen-and-ink stipplings are hyperrealistic, neo-cubist portraits and dreamscapes.
But how to get his artwork from prison cell to gallery wall? Art lovers recognize the talent in his rawness, but confronted with its source, art-opening attendees may choke on their brie and Chardonnay.
There is a San Francisco organization that seeks out artists like Noguera, artists that nobody else will touch. Noguera first contacted the Institute for Unpopular Culture (happily known as IFUC) in 2004, and reading the typed letter Noguera sent from San Quentin, founder David Ferguson knew he'd just found the challenge of his career.
"Dear Mr. Ferguson,
My name is William A. Noguera. I'm an artist who is seeking help in giving my art a voice. For the past 21 years I've been a prisoner, the last 17 of these years ... condemned to die at San Quentin Prison. Most men's soul's [sic] have died when faced with these circumstances. Everyday [sic] I look into the faces of the men who surround me and their souls are lost. I ... have found an escape route from death ... to a world I create in my art. ... I seek your help because I can't seem to break through the barrier of the art world. I've had some success but without any real support its [sic] very difficult.
I hope you are well and I hope to hear from you soon.
Thank you for your time and efforts, it is appreciated.
William A. Noguera"
While he didn't know it at the time, Noguera had found a home for his talents, an institute that would begin to work to champion his art. IFUC promotes artistic attempts to challenge and destabilize the status quo. By sponsoring subversive, or unpopular, artistic visions, the Institute hopes to alleviate the artist's need to cater to public opinion in order to make a living. Dedicated to restoring art to its inherently personal nature, rather than the repetitive products of many art-school graduates, IFUC intends to preserve diversity of opinion and richness of experience.