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A funny thing happened to me on the way to Alcatraz



I wound up at an art show.

It all started when an artist friend of mine invited me down to San Francisco’s infamous tourist attraction, Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary, to view an ongoing series of work he calls The Dark and the Wounded.

James Picard has chosen not to show the series of paintings (and drawings) in art galleries but in non-traditional settings that he feels are more suited to the subject matter. These aren’t velvet paintings of clowns (though there is one scary-clown painting) but images of contorted bodies, horrific SS guards, eyeless children, and some images that look as though they wouldn’t be out of place on the cover of a Clive Barker novel.

Hence, asylums, prisons and other (now-abandoned) institutions have become the sites for the work. So far, the Vancouver-based artist has taken The Dark and the Wounded to Riverview Hospital (twice), an empty asylum in Coquitlam near Vancouver, B.C., as well as facilities in Philadelphia (Eastern State Penitentiary), Los Angeles (Lincoln Heights Jail and Linda Vista Hospital), New York State (Rolling Hills Asylum), Toronto (Berkeley Church) and, following the May 5 Alcatraz show, Sacramento (Preston Castle, a 19th century reform school). Plans for the exhibit include a European tour to include the (destroyed) town of Oradour-sur-Glane and the Paris Catacombs in France, the Berlin bunkers and a Polish concentration camp. Owing to the complexity and logistics of procuring the venues and mounting the art, the shows are usually one-night-only.

The challenges of taking such a show to these kinds of sites obviously hasn’t stopped Picard – if anything, the amount of red tape and negotiations necessary seem to have spurred him on. Securing Alcatraz, located on Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay, for one night took months of red tape (not to mention the cost of renting the facility, and a ferry). Even up until the last minute, Picard wasn’t sure he and his crew would be able to mount the show properly as authorities suddenly went back on their word, informing him at the last minute that he wasn’t authorized to hang the paintings on the bars of the cells, despite the plan already having been approved beforehand.

But he pulled it off.

(For the record, Picard is the only artist to have exhibited at Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary, though Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s @Large, which ran from Sept. 27 2014 to April 26 2015, brought seven site-specific installations to four locations on the island itself.)

Getting to Alcatraz, and even the ferry launch, was an adventure in itself. For myself, the trip was planned last-minute, and I had only enough time to get from the airport to the meeting place. I was told to meet at Pier 50, and this is what I encountered:


Fortunately, there were some other baffled folk who had come down to view the exhibit, and we soon figured out where we were supposed to catch the ferry that would take us to the island. About 30 of us piled into the ship, which left from a dock on the eastern edge of San Francisco (far from Fisherman’s Wharf). By then it was night. A baseball game was in progress at AT&T Park, which was visible as we motored to “the Rock.”



On arrival, we were greeted by a couple of U.S. National Park rangers who work the Alcatraz tourist beat and who gave us the run-down on the history of the prison (it was closed up in 1963). I learned that the building hugging the shore, which I thought at first was the prison, was actually the barracks – Alcatraz, built in 1868, was originally home to a military fort and prison.

Following the spiel, we were ushered up a road behind the barracks (which once housed the prison guards) to the prison itself. And, for the next two-hours-plus, we had one of the world’s most notorious penitentiaries all to ourselves, along with a small crew that was filming the proceedings for a documentary Picard is putting together, and some park rangers.

The paintings had been hung outside cells on the bars, as well as on the walls of communal rooms such as the mess hall, the library and the infirmary. The prison is much as it was when it was decommissioned, and this frozen-in-time quality, along with the night-time setting, the small group of people wondering the largely empty facility, the eerie music (by film composer Jeff Danna) playing in the background, even the journey there – all added to the effect of being somewhere we shouldn’t, of transgressing, of being offered a glimpse of something we weren’t meant to see.


Positioned as it was, the work seemed to mirror the suffering that must have gone on amidst the crumbling walls and bare necessities of the small cells.



Two hours in an abandoned prison looking at paintings of human suffering can do something to a person, though. By 11:30, when it was time for the prison to shut down for the night, I was ready to leave Alcatraz and find my way back to my hotel room. Where, I hoped, The Dark and the Wounded wouldn’t follow me into my dreams.


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One Comment

  1. […] for an art show (in the abandoned prison on Alcatraz – you can read about the show here). I had a free day in SF before coming back to Vancouver, so naturally I decided to spend it […]

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