Artist Ronnie Goodman, Who Channeled Experiences of Houselessness and Incarceration

The memorial that sprung around Ronnie Goodman’s encampment at 16th and Capp Streets in San Francisco (photo by Rene Morrison)

SAN FRANCISCO — Ronnie Lamont Goodman died Friday, August 7 at his encampment on the corner of 16th and Capp streets in San Francisco, an intersection he depicted five years earlier in a self-portrait. The print, bearing his kinetic etching style, shows him holding an umbrella and pushing a cart, trudging through nearly horizontal rain beneath the Mission District street signs. In his work, Goodman had long addressed his position as a Black man who experienced houselessness, addiction, and incarceration, foregrounding the interconnectedness of these struggles. Today, much of Goodman’s art appears not only to draw on his life but to anticipate his death. 

Goodman, born in 1960, died at a time when his work and the issues he raised are receiving pronounced critical attention. He’s profiled as a prison artist in Nicole Fleetwood’s new book Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration, and his work appears in a related MoMA PS1 exhibition. In the Bay Area, wildfire smoke and COVID-19 have highlighted the vulnerability of our houseless neighbors. And state violence against Black and incarcerated people, including avoidable virus outbreaks in prisons, have mainstreamed calls to abolish prisons and police.      

Ronnie Goodman, “Self-portrait’ (2010), linoleum block print (photo by Peter Merts)

Goodman, who was born in Los Angeles and raised in San Francisco, referred to himself somewhat misleadingly as a self-taught artist. He learned to read and write in prison; he was incarcerated at four different locations over the course of his life, lastly concluding an eight-year sentence at San Quentin State Prison in 2010. Over the years, he studied painting, drawing, and printmaking with teaching artists of the William James Association’s statewide Prison Arts Project, including Katya McCulloch, Patrick Maloney, and Art Hazelwood. The “outsider” and “lone genius” framing of some recent remembrances discredit the deeply social aspects of his practice, Hazelwood said in an interview with Hyperallergic. “He was a community artist.”

Many incarcerated artists decline to address imprisonment directly in their work. There are various reasons. Blast Holiday, a rapper incarcerated at San Quentin, told me recently that he doesn’t write about prison in order to retain control — because the prison system has all of his time, he refuses to give it space in his music. Censorship and parole considerations also play a strong role in dissuading frank depictions of prison. The system incentivizes incarcerated artists to use more upbeat imagery and themes that denote rehabilitation in the eyes of prison officials. 

Ronnie Goodman, “Untitled (hanging CDCR jacket)” (2009), acrylic painting (photo by Peter Merts)

Goodman, though, focused on his environment, and seemed to draw on deep reserves of focus and curiosity to learn new techniques. The material conditions of creating while incarcerated became the subject of some of his most striking works. In the 1990s, he contributed comics partly set in prison to the Black community newspaper the San Francisco Bay View and published under the names ‘Hard Bricks’ or ‘J-Cat and Bootzilla.’ He created charcoal and pencil portraits of fellow prisoners. An untitled 2009 oil painting of his blue prison-issued jacket shows tatters concentrated on the right sleeve, a metonymic self-portrait. 

“San Quentin Arts in Corrections Art Studio,” a 2008 canvas, is the first artwork reproduced in Nicole Fleetwood’s new book Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration. The painting shows Goodman inspecting a print in the San Quentin studio, surrounded by artwork on the walls. Fleetwood points out the interplay of imagination and constraint in the bright, high-ceilinged room with a conspicuous one-way surveillance window, and reports Goodman exercised curatorial discretion deciding what works of his and his San Quentin peers to show on the walls. 

Ronnie Goodman, “San Quentin Arts in Corrections Art Studio” (2008) (acrylic painting) (photo by Peter Merts)

Fleetwood, who calls the painting an example of “carceral aesthetics” — or the forms of cultural production that arise from imprisonment — notes the theme of mobility in Goodman’s prison work. (He was a committed marathon runner.) One print shows sneakers beneath a starry night sky. He repeatedly depicted jazz musicians hovering in the clouds above San Quentin like liberating tricksters. In “Lower Yard at San Quentin,” sky imagery summons escape, as a prisoner feeds gulls and geese in the foreground, while more birds flock in the distance. It implies the nearby San Francisco Bay, a teeming trade and migration node close enough to San Quentin to smell, yet still invisible from the prison yard.

Fleetwood, referencing abolitionist scholar Angela Davis, writes that popular representations of prison traffic in “rehearsed images” largely choreographed by the state: mug shots, cells, bars, barbed wire. The images promote the perception of prison as remote instead of embedded in modern life, denying people stigmatized as criminals their capacity for intimacy, relationships, and political agency. Artists such as Goodman, Fleetwood writes, challenge the “normative viewing relationship” with incarcerated people that “legitimates their capture and exclusion.”

Ronnie Goodman, “Lower Yard at San Quentin” (2007), acrylic painting (photo by Peter Merts)

In an interview with Hyperallergic, Laurie Brooks, executive director of the William James Foundation, pointed out that the studio Goodman used at San Quentin is unique in the state prison system. The state’s Arts in Corrections Program budget contracted dramatically in the early 2000s, only beginning to recover in the past five years. She credits artists such as Goodman with helping activate political will to fund what policymakers call “rehabilitative” programming, noting a campaign to boost the corrections budget for resources such as the arts. 

“There’s a critical mass of people paying attention to how many of our resources go to warehousing human beings,” Brooks said.

Hazelwood, the Prison Arts Project instructor, continued working with Goodman after he was paroled to San Francisco in 2010. The longtime organizer and political printmaker introduced Goodman to grassroots organizations Western Regional Advocacy Project and Coalition on Homelessness, which commissioned Goodman to illustrate research findings and campaigns. Goodman began addressing homelessness with the same focus he’d brought to incarceration, only under the added influence of activists and community mural and social realist traditions. 

Goodman didn’t necessarily think of himself as an activist. He avoided protests, not wanting to risk detainment. “But given the opportunity he was enthusiastic about taking his experiences and transforming them into a statement for a cause,” Hazelwood said. His biting attacks of public policies such as encampment sweeps — in which he repeatedly lost artwork, supplies, and irreplaceable mementos, such as the only picture of his son — inform ongoing campaigns. He was a powerful advocate: Goodman raised thousands of dollars for the community-based organization and art studio Hospitality House running a marathon in 2014. 

Like many formerly incarcerated people who struggle with drug addiction, Goodman spent the last decade of his life without stable housing. For long periods, his addiction prevented him from making the work for which he’s celebrated, and damaged relationships with his friends and family. Stop the Revolving Door, a new report from the Coalition on Homelessness, found one third of more than 500 people experiencing the lack of housing struggle with substance abuse. Incarceration was among the most common reasons reported for losing housing. The report stresses the need for housing as a basis for addressing addiction and skewers the criminalization of homelessness, echoing Goodman’s prints and personal testimony. 

Memorial for Ronnie Goodman at his encampment at 16th and Capp Streets in San Francisco (photo by Rene Morrison)

This year’s August issue of Street Sheet, a publication of the Coalition on Homelessness, features on its cover Goodman’s 2011 print “The Occupy Homeless Movement,” one of his many pieces promoting activist campaigns, depicting a march towards San Francisco City Hall. The border’s bedbugs and rats speak to conditions he encountered on the streets, and signs reading “homes not prisons” stress the connection between incarceration and houselessness. In the foreground, the crowd parts to show a casket, and the central banner reads, “No More Homeless Deaths.” 

In an artist statement at the time, Goodman said the print shows “the struggle of the people — the rich people against the little people and the little people are tired of getting stepped on.”  Occupy gave a name to the piece, though he’d started it prior to the national movement. “Occupy speaks not only to homeless people but it gives voice to everyone whatever they’re going through, foreclosure, job loss, et cetera,” Goodman said. “It’s the voice of the people.”

Ronnie Goodman, “The Occupy Homeless Movement” (2011), linocut print (image courtesy San Francisco Poster Syndicate)

“The Occupy Homeless Movement” echoes “Funeral March,” a 1940 wood engraving by Adelyne Cross-Eriksson. The likeness is no coincidence, as Hazelwood introduced the work to Goodman as an example of earlier San Francisco protest art. The Cross-Eriksson engraving shows a precipitating event for San Francisco’s General Strike of 1934. Police had killed two workers in an attack on striking longshoremen, prompting thousands to join a funeral march that would prove pivotal in unionizing ports along the West Coast. Goodman’s piece, inspired by the social realist work, similarly mixes mourning and anger, and uses perspective to show a crowd dwarfing an institutional edifice. In a call to action, perhaps the defining gesture of his life and work, Goodman invokes history to show the enduring power of a mass movement to effect change.

Goodman is survived by Tanya Goodman, his wife; daughters Nicole and Piara; and his son Marinte. Another son, Ronnie Goodman Jr., who was also an artist, died in 2014. The murals Goodman created earlier this year on the ground and walls surrounding his Mission District encampment have transformed into a sprawling street memorial. The morning after his death, as San Francisco police idled by Goodman’s tent, there was another sort of tribute. Hazelwood recalled in his own remembrance: “Someone, thinking the cops were harassing Ronnie, sprayed the police car with a fire extinguisher, coating it with a white powdering of dust.”

The unhoused artist died in San Francisco this August, just as his work was beginning to find new outlets in museums and scholarship.Read MoreFeatures, California, incarceration, Ronnie Goodman, San FranciscoHyperallergicRead More

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