This report is written by the Covid In-Custody Project which partners with the Davis Vanguard to report on the pandemic in California’s county jails and Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR). Visit our website to view and download our data on cases, testing, releases and vaccinations for incarcerated people and staff.
By Cassie Gorman
52-year-old Orlando Smith lives in a shoebox; well, that’s what he calls his shared cell in San Quentin State Prison, measuring only 4 feet by 9 feet. As an incarcerated artist, or as Smith puts it, an “artist who happens to be incarcerated,” he has the task of transforming his “shoebox” into a workspace. Every morning, he rolls his mattress into a chair, props it up by his bunk and settles into his makeshift desk, surrounded by colored pencils and paper.
With limited resources and space, Smith fills his 250-year-long prison sentence with dedication to his craft, and as a result, he has created over 63 graphic novels and countless illustrated journalist drawings for foundations, galleries and online publication in the 23 years he has been incarcerated.
Now, Smith’s work is getting the spotlight treatment at a solo exhibition in downtown Oakland. Running at the Manna Gallery from July 30 to Sept. 10, “the O. Smith Perspective” is a powerful display of 30 pieces of Smith’s work from the past few years, commenting on prison conditions, power dynamics in America, his experience as a black man and more.
The seeds for this exhibition were planted in 2021, when Smith entered an art contest. While the self-taught artist and illustrator did not win, his entry, titled “Depraved Indifference,” caught the eyes of Mark Lightfoot, Elaine Maute and Dan Weber – co-owners of the Manna Art Gallery. Maute wrote to Smith in January 2022, and with the help of Smith’s friend Holly Delany Cole, the gallery acquired Smith’s pieces over the next seven months.
Under California’s Three Strikes Law, Smith is serving eight life sentences for the eight counts of robbery against him. As Smith remains incarcerated, he is not able to visit the gallery. While he expresses gratitude and joy for his exhibition, he also discloses some mixed feelings in a letter to the Covid In-Custody Project.
“Here it is, hundreds of people at my opening (I hope), looking at my art, my perspective, yet miles away on this island of San Quentin, I feel so isolated,” Smith writes. “It feels like a funeral in reverse, my exhibition is where my spirit is, and my body is here in San Quentin hell. Seriously, having my own exhibition is amazing… the freedom of expression has no limit and I’m living proof, because I did it all from a ‘bird cage.’”
The gallery features pieces from Smith’s collections: the O. Smith Perspective, a visual op-ed; the Gruelling Report, a journalist’s perspective on prison conditions; and pieces from a “Protest Poster” series, originally for activists and organizations like the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. Each piece, displayed on storyboard panels, takes Smith anywhere from one to four days.
During a reception on the exhibition’s opening day, Smith’s art was surrounded by his supporters and friends, including people he was incarcerated with, like former cellmate Emile DeWeaver.
“Orlando made some really bad and harmful decisions in his life,” says DeWeaver, addressing the crowd at the Manna Gallery. “But we are not the worst thing we ever did. Excise that from his story and look at him. He is everything we are trying to teach our children to be, everything that we want to be, that we aspire to be. He’s honest, he works hard, he cares for others, he takes care of others and he does that in conditions that do not incentivize that.”
While DeWeaver lived with Smith for a period in San Quentin, they actually met prior, while Smith was mentoring DeWeaver’s foster brother in art. DeWeaver became familiar with Smith’s immense talent and giving nature through this partnership, and DeWeaver says he can see Smith’s artistic influence shine through his foster brother’s art.
Creating art behind prison walls is not without challenges. On July 1, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation suspended their use of JPay, an email communication service incarcerated people used to contact friends and family. Smith has limited access to phones as well, with only seven phones for the almost 400 residents in his housing unit. As a result, communication was Smith’s biggest challenge in creating “the O. Smith Perspective.”
Smith remains dedicated to his art with the help of his inspirations, including The Almighty, his mother, Stan Lee, Ta-Nehisi Coates, C.S. Lewis and 50 Cent. He says he creates because art “is more powerful than a nuclear explosion, however, art “does not obliterate, but create.”
The artist also cites strong motivations, among them a drive to cast light on human rights abuses in the prison system and dispel the harmful narratives plaguing those behind bars. Because his art is deeply rooted in social justice and activism, Smith calls himself an “artivist.”
“Incarcerated artists have been undervalued,” writes Smith in a letter to the Covid In-Custody Project, “but more so most incarcerated artists undervalue themselves. My job as an artivist is to show we are not throw-a-way people.”
“The O. Smith Perspective” will be on display in the Manna Gallery until Sept. 10 during operating hours. Reproductions of some original pieces are available to purchase, with the proceeds split evenly between Smith and the non-profit gallery.
To learn more about the Manna Gallery and “the O. Smith Perspective,” click here.