History’s Mortar: Ambition

“History’s Mortar: Ambition” is a site-specific exhibition of visual art at Fort Point. Four Bay Area artists were invited to explore Fort Point’s history, architecture and landscape, and compose the Fort’s historic narratives into contemporary modes of visual art.

These site-specific works bring the collective experience of the US History to bear, reveal how a contemporary public narrates historic space and examines humanity’s relationship to nature.

“History’s Mortar: Ambition” asks the audience to consider the cyclical nature of human history, marking that it often repeats itself, and presents ideas as to how society copes with it’s legacy of ideologies, ontological positions, and cultural practices.

Curated by Visual Arts Director Patrick Gillespie

Participating Artists:

Monica Lundy
Matthew Gordon
Torreya Cummings
Brandon Walls Olsen

……….Location: Fort Point, San Francisco
……….Dates: September 5 – November 2, 2013

“History’s Mortar: Ambition” was part of We Players 2013 site-integrated project, Macbeth at Fort Point.

HISTORY’S MORTAR:  AMBITION — Curatorial Statement by Patrick Gillespie

Fort Point is an impressive display of technology and military architecture.  Walking through the compound archways and the extraordinary symmetry rendered by compass, right triangle, rule and hand creates an experience of awe.

The backdrop to Fort Point is an equally extraordinary feat of engineering, the Golden Gate Bridge.  It towers above sea level, humming with traffic, stoic against the weight of human bodies and the endless winds of the Pacific.

But before there was the bridge and before there was Fort Point, there was humanity and it’s inability to cope with it’s own folly, particularly an individual’s rise to power.  That particular thread of seemingly endless human ingenuity never fundamentally changes; only the spectacle and the tools utilized to bring about a dismal end evolves.

The site specific artworks created for Fort Point echo the folly of human history, our symbolic projection of power, and the natural forces that seemingly thrash ambition into submission.

The artwork by Matt Gordon responds to Fort Point with the refrain from “The Lament for the Markaris,” by William Dunbar, commenting on the ever comforting and contemplative aspect of death.  Monica Lundy’s Portait of Confederate Commander James Waddell reminds us of our particular vantage point on history, rendering a leader of men as a weed because of his allegiance to the wrong side of the war.  Torreya Cummings simulates mankind’s belief that nature can be captured and put inside a box, controlling it in theory, but ever failing in practice.  And Brandon Olsen reminds us that the spoils of war bring about a kind of transformation we rarely deal with or speak to publicly, surrender.

Fort Point is brilliant in it’s architecture, prowess and stoicism.  Yet for all of the effort and technology used to bring it into existence, it’s design was never coupled with its purpose.  Having never witnessed battle, Fort Point has lasted these hundred years to remind us of fear reconciled with power and security, and the inevitable purposelessness of creation out of fear.


Uncharted Formations

ANGEL-ISLAND-EXHIBITION-UNCHARTED-463x600Throughout 2012, We Players’ explored themes found throughout the history of Angel Island, namely journeying, war, homecoming and refuge, and presented a series of art, education and community engagement programs to stimulate discussion around these themes.

Graduate student final projects
California College of the Arts – Engage program
Angel Island and the Gate Keeping Nation
Autumn 2012 course taught by Aaron Gach and Patrick Gillespie

Exhibiting Artists:
Regina Acebo
Ebun Alugbin
Julie Feldman
Susan L. Lin
Robert Gome
Neil Rivas (clavo)

EXHIBITION EXTENDED through spring 2013

This graduate class marks an unprecedented collaboration between We Players (an arts non-profit), California College for the Arts (a for-profit institute for higher education), and a California State Parks site.

The class explored “island-ness” in relation to historical narratives, works of fiction, current politics, and contemporary artworks. Angel Island served both as a physical and a theoretical site of investigation for the seminar. Additionally, seminar discussions engaged a range of island discourses through readings, screenings, and presentations by community members and guest artists.

Students were granted unique access to Angel Island for conducting their own research and site investigations. The class culminated in a closing exhibition comprised of student projects that respond directly to Angel Island as a historical site, and/or to “islandness” as a concept with multiple trends through culture, literature, art, and history.

How We Leave and Return:  Intersections of Art and History

How We Leave and Return: a site-specific exhibition of visual art on Angel Island.

Seven Bay Area artists were invited to explore Angel Island’s history, architecture, and landscape, and compose the island’s historic narratives into contemporary modes of visual art.  Some of the works brought the collective experience of island to bear, while others revealed how a contemporary public commodifies historic space, examining the narrative position of the human in relationship to nature, and commenting on current trending of the past through re-imagined utilitarian and ritual practices.  The exhibit asked the audience to consider the cyclical nature of mythic and human history, marking that it often repeats itself, and presents ideas as to how a society copes with it’s legacy of ideologies, ontological positions, and cultural practices.

Curated by Visual Arts Director Patrick Gillespie

Exhibiting Artists:

James Bradley
Torreya Cummings
Lauren Dietrech-Chavez
Julia Goodman
Matt Gordon
Justin Hurty
Brandon Olsen
Imin Yeh

……….Location: Angel Island State Park
……….Dates: April 28 – July 1, 2012

How We Leave and Return was part of the We Players Visual Arts Program during it’s 2012 residency on Angel Island.

Images from the Inside

The final exhibit in We Players’ 2011 Alcatraz series, is the most comprehensive gathering of inmate-produced visual artwork in the Bay Area in over 30 years. The National Park Service and We Players invited the Prison Arts Project, which sponsors on-going art classes at San Quentin through the William James Association, to exhibit outstanding examples of its work in our Alcatraz cell house gallery space. The exhibit also included work from the former California Arts-in-Corrections program – now collected by UCLA Library’s Prison Arts Archiving Project and WJA.

Images from the Inside was installed in the Cell House Gallery, Alcatraz, August 27 – November 11, 2011.

The successful collaboration of the public and the inmate population is one of the foundations of Arts-in-Corrections, which existed from 1980-2010 in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. That model was started in 1977 by the initial Prison Arts Project, which used professional artists, writers, and performers as teachers and role models of discipline, skill and commitment to growth and hard work. Participation in Arts-in-Corrections correlates to a lower recidivism rate, thus significantly reducing costs for the state and helping people to stay out of prison upon their release. A university study found that participants in the AIC program had a 27% lower recidivism rate than the general prison population. Ninety percent of inmates will return to life outside the prison walls, and arts and educational programming helps address the challenges of re-entry through public collaboration and creative growth. (click here for links to study)

The exhibition-opening event on August 27th included a panel discussion representing a significant gathering of minds in prison arts programming in the Bay Area.

Panelists included:

Larry Brewster, Professor, USF
Laurie Brooks, Executive Director, William James Association
Steve Emerick, former Arts-in-Corrections Artist/Facilitator; recipient of Dalai Lama’s Compassion Award
Patrick Maloney, San Quentin art teacher for 23 years
Katya McCulloch, San Quentin art teacher for 6 years
Carol Newborg, Exhibit Organizer for WJA, former AIC teacher
Panel was moderated by: Patrick Gillespie, We Players Gallery Curator

Another panel, moderated by Larry Brewster, and comprised of ex-inmate artists, followed a tour of the Images from the Inside exhibit during We Players’ Alcatraz Symposium on Justice & Freedom.


In Visible Categories: Invisible People

This exhibition explores the Alcatraz themes through the lens of identity, specifically looking at how the prison system frames the identity of prisoners, and influences personal identity for prisoners, their families, and others who have not had a direct relationship with incarceration. Visual arts and the prison system both produce symbolic representations of individuals. Correctional symbolism can be viewed as a form of disciplinary action, reducing the color, depth and personality of an individual’s identity to an anonymous number. Visual art has its own use of symbolism that allows identities and personal experience to become legible, and move into public concern.

On Display in the Alcatraz Cell House Gallery, April 9-June 4, 2011
– Select portraits from Monica Lundy’s Women of San Quentin series
– Select portraits from Evan Bissell’s What Cannot be Taken Away: Families and Prisons Project
– Interactive reflection station

Read more about the events We Players held associated with this exhibit.

Participating Artists

Monica Lundy PaintingMonica Lundy’s paintings reveal the evolution of mug shots within the California prison system.  She is a frequent visitor to the Sacramento archives and researches how the correctional system files and categorizes a civilian into the prison population.  Her displayed artwork, excerpts from her Women of San Quentin series, shows the evolving efficiency of mug shots – a penalty that reduces personal history to a number, date, and a crime.

Monica is interested in the immense social history that catalogues those who have passed through institutional systems and out of memory.  She presents this interest through a method of painting that is a kind of entropy; she allows the image to build itself through the natural movement of mediums, alluding to decay and the degrading walls of old institutions.  She frames a unique moment of transformation through her paintings of fresh prisoners, first introduced into the system, and subsequently passed out of memory.

Evan Bissell Painting

Evan Bissell engages in collaborative art making, utilizing creativity to access unseen realities and generating creative expressions of personal and community truths.  His contributions to this exhibition, a portion of the larger project What Cannot Be Taken Away, were created in partnership with multiple programs of Community Works West.

Evan worked collaboratively with a group of prisoners and an unrelated group of youth who have parents in prison, facilitating dialogue between the two groups on the impact of incarceration on families, and developing large-scale self-portraits of each of the eight participant. Over a five month period, through writing, art making, audio conversation and meditation, each participant began to clarify the impact of the prison system on their identity and sketch out ideas for their final portraits, ultimately painted by Evan. The symbols and compositions, designed by the participants and Evan, represent reflections on transformation.  The collaborative act of creating these portraits revealed a deep understanding of how prison affected the individual’s concept of self and what it means to change, for each individual involved with the project

Associated Events

On April 9, 2011, We Players and the National Park Service presented a guided tour, gallery viewing, and panel discussion (in the historic Alcatraz Hospital) on transformation of identity, restorative justice, and the methodology of state produced inmate portraiture.

On June 4, 2011, We Players and the National Park Service presented a closing workshop for In Visible Categories: Invisible People.

The event included: a guided walk and informal conversation with We Players on Alcatraz 2011 collaborators; gallery viewing (final opportunity before deinstall!); a workshop on relational identity with artist Evan Bissell; discussion; and exhibition-closing remarks.

More details on the workshop with Evan Bissell
Using oranges, mirrored paper, pens and memory, visitors will engage in the opening exercise of the 5 month collaborative process of What Cannot Be Taken Away: Families and Prisons Project. The one and a half hour workshop will combine elements of meditation, drawing and writing to reflect on the complex legacies, experiences and circumstances that have created our present day lives. The workshop culminates with participants writing a letter to an ancestor they have never met.

Panel Discussion: Restorative Justice & Victim Awareness

Moderated by: Patrick Gillespie
Panelists: Reggie Daniels, Rose Elizondo, Richard Kamler and Sonya Shah

“Process Orientation of the Creative Arts and Healing; Product Orientation of our Current Prison System”

A panel of Restorative Justice practitioners, artists, and performers discussed the theories and methods of Restorative Justice and Victim Awareness. The discussion explored how the creative arts intersect with these practices to facilitate healing and transformation, and raises awareness for both the general public and the prison population. In addition, the panel explored the differences and overlap of Social Justice and artistic practices.

Hamlet on Alcatraz Outreach

Anna Martine Whitehead and the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department

While We Players rehearsed Hamlet over the demanding Alcatraz terrain, new and returning artists at the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department spent Summer 2010 building giant puppets and banners that address Hamlet’s themes – including isolation, redemption, and loss. Over the course of Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet finds himself more and more alone within a court of panderers, backstabbers, adulterers, and murderers. He struggles with the moral question of how to avenge his father’s death, increasingly aware of the cycle of violence and limitations of reason. He becomes morose, and in the process loses not only his father, but his mother, a sense of family,  his love, and ultimately his own life.

These same themes of loss, isolation, and redemption are felt keenly by the 260,000 people incarcerated in California jails and prisons, and the over 446,000 California residents on probation, parole, or supervision. Setting the trend for the nation, incarceration has become an epidemic in California.

The artists who designed the work here are all on probation, parole, or supervision and a few have served time at San Quentin State Prison, directly across the Bay. They have experienced the loss of friends, family, childhood, social standing or a sense of self to violence, drugs, AIDS, and incarceration.

For those who repeatedly showed up to make artwork, several times a week for over twelve weeks, the manipulation of raw material into identifiable images of salvation and remembrance (ghosts, fists raised in the air, and crosses, among other things) was a critical step in their ongoing process of redemption and self-forgiveness. Their lived experience of these themes, as well as their commitment to the art of personal expression, informed We Players’ generative process.


Franky Alfaro
John F. Earle
James L. Ellis II
Michael Goodwin
LeRoy Hoggis
Alma Johnson
Allen, Alex, Alberto (Cuba), Mike, Oliver and Richard

Banner artists:

Lejhaun Bowden
Daniel Chesnutt
Darinell Collier
Rashawna Dixon
Mariana Duran
Lacresha Foster
Celina Gallardo
Trina Glover
Vinh Hoang
Pamela Watson
Shaun Webb
Keith Williams
Marcella M. Wiltz
Cornell, and Semaj (Doh)

……….Location: Alcatraz Island, San Francisco
……….Dates: January 29 – April 2, 2011 

Anna Martine Whitehead Artist Statement
I use video, puppets, sound, and movement to address disremembered histories. My history-telling performances are an extension of my investment in transformative performance traditions, my commitment to disidentificatory countermemory, and my penchant for retelling trauma as fantasy. I uncover the buried histories of space and identity formation to tell new stories of self-actualization. Working within thematic discourses of diaspora, memory, melancholia, and desire, my practice narrativizes those invisible and unwritten moments where hybrid identities and collective knowledges meet.

Proliferation, 2011

We Players’ first 2011 exhibition opening on Alcatraz focused on aesthetically presenting factual information about our current prison system in the United States. On Saturday, January 29th, We Players and the National Park Service presented live music and a talk with artist Paul Rucker, as well as screenings of his video Proliferation, in our gallery space inside the Alcatraz Cell House.


Paul Rucker

……….Location: Alcatraz Island, San Francisco
……….Date: January 29th, 2011

View Proliferation on YouTube (or click below) and visit www.paulrucker.com for more information.