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Hidden Treasure 

Half a century ago, ex-heroin dealer Alfredo Santos created an epic work of art inside San Quentin. Now, he's coming back to be honored for it.

Wednesday, Jul 23 2003

Page 4 of 5

His good fortune in Guadalajara was eclipsed by his success in Mexico City. Santos moved to the Mexican capital in 1964 and set up shop on Calle Niza, near the trendy boutiques and restaurants of the Zona Rosa, the city's upscale tourist mecca. "It was really an incredible time," says Mary Ann Summers, 61, Santos' second wife. She was a young Irish Catholic woman from Chicago exploring Mexico when she met and married Santos in 1965. The union produced two sons, Chris, 35, an aspiring artist in Colorado, and Rene, 33, a part-time waiter who lives with his father. Divorced in 1977, Summers is now a librarian in the village of Woodstock, N.Y., but remains close to Santos.

"Alfredo had this fantastic gallery above a Chinese restaurant with four huge rooms downstairs and a big sunny studio loft above it," she recalls. "Between the two levels, sort of hidden away, was his bedroom, the walls of which were completely covered with photographs and paintings of nudes." And then there were the real ones. "There was a constant stream of beautiful women, and they all seemed to want to pose for him," says Lercher. "He was this magnetic young artist with a terrific following. His problem was that he couldn't manage the business side. People who worked for him stole him blind."

Lercher says he unwittingly contributed to Santos' business woes. On a flight to Mexico City the lawyer sat next to a man who revealed he had been an inmate at San Quentin, which led to a discussion of the murals. The ex-con expressed his admiration and said he'd love to meet the artist. "You should drop in and see him," Lercher recalls telling the passenger. Santos later hired the man to work in the gallery, "and the guy ended up embezzling."

At the top of his game, the ever-restless Santos relocated to Acapulco for a year and then got the urge to go stateside. The plan, he says, was to hit New York City as a steppingstone to Europe. It didn't work out. With a wife and infant son in tow, he settled into a rented apartment near Washington Square, accepting commissions from a cadre of New York clients who had discovered his work in Mexico. One of them, a matronly socialite, had a summer home in the Catskills near the sleepy village of Fleischmanns, a short drive from the soon-to-be-famous town of Woodstock.

Santos scooped up the family and moved there in the summer of 1968. Soon, with help from another patron who provided the down payment, he bought an abandoned plumbing supply store on the town's main drag and converted it to a studio and gallery. The family lived upstairs. "Alfredo's place was a magnet for every hip person for miles around," says Joel Fishkin, 61, a retired executive who lives in Connecticut and a longtime Santos friend and patron.

Fishkin discovered Fleischmanns -- and Santos -- during a ski trip to the Catskills in the early 1970s. "People would come and watch him work and just hang out and talk politics, art -- you name it. There was always a crowd." Indeed, an ad in the local paper proclaimed the gallery to be "open daily until 11:30 p.m. or by appointment." Says Fishkin: "It was its own little world, with Alfredo the charismatic central figure."

Yet despite Santos' popularity and penchant for regaling listeners with his experiences in Mexico and elsewhere, the early chapters of his life remained cordoned off to all but a few confidants. Even Fishkin, who was privy to the fact that Santos had been in prison, never knew why he was sent there. "There were certain things that even close friends didn't ask about, and San Quentin was one of them," recalls Susan MacAuley, a professional photographer in Virginia who was a Fleischmanns regular. She had no knowledge of the murals until a year ago, when Summers, a close friend, enlisted her help in a vain attempt to find photographs of the prison art.

The murals attract an enthusiastic -- if captive -- audience at San Quentin. "You think about inmates who eat in the same place every day for years and it gives them something stimulating to think about," says Crittenden, the prison spokesman. "They appreciate it."

In some respects, however, the penitentiary is a less than ideal art venue. Steam rising from hot carts used to serve food in the mess halls has taken a toll on the murals. They've undergone two restorations. The first, in the late 1960s, proved to be hit or miss. The protective coating applied to the murals caused the original reddish oil to turn brown, prompting successive generations of inmates exposed to the paintings to conclude -- wrongly -- that the artist may have used brown shoe polish.

During a restoration effort in the early '90s, the cafeteria's skylights were removed in an effort to prevent fading. "The murals were pretty dilapidated," recalls Aida de Arteaga, a prison teacher who oversaw that effort. Although inmates generally have refrained from placing graffiti on the murals, vandalism has become more of a problem in the decade since San Quentin was reduced from a maximum-security to a multilevel-security facility, with a younger, more transient inmate population.

"The old-timers were more respectful," she says. "Probably because they knew they would be looking at the murals for the rest of their lives."

About The Author

Ron Russell


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