The Solitary Garden Project replicates a cell at San Quentin State Prison — but with views of Monterey Bay
The Solitary Garden Project replicates a cell at San Quentin State Prison — but with views of Monterey Bay and free access to visitors.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Higher Ed

UCSC prison abolition initiative sees ‘powerful statement’ in $1.97M grant

UCSC’s Visualizing Abolition project — made up of graduate students and faculty aiming to further the discussion on mass incarceration and policing in the U.S. through art — was awarded a $1.977 million grant this week by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The initiative has produced two art exhibitions and a speaker series that has reached thousands across the country.

A 6-foot-by-9-foot replica of a solitary confinement cell sits outside the Elena Baskin Visual Arts Center at UC Santa Cruz. But unlike a typical cell, the art installation is open for visitors to walk into and out of, surrounded by a garden and overlooking Monterey Bay. The installation replicates cells from San Quentin State Prison, where artist and activist Tim Young has been confined on death row for 21 years.

The Solitary Garden Project was built in 2019 as a collaboration among Young, New Orleans-based artist Jackie Sumell, and volunteers and interns with Visualizing Abolition, a project established at UCSC to further the discussion of mass incarceration, detention and policing through art.

Young sent Visualizing Abolition a series of letters from San Quentin, describing the roses, daffodils and sugarcane he would plant in a garden if he could. Young envisioned the Solitary Garden Project, and those involved brought it to fruition.

Letters from San Quentin's death row from artist and activist Tim Young inspired the Solitary Garden Project.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“I pictured myself at the Solitary Garden on the UC Santa Cruz campus,” Young wrote in a 2019 letter. “I sat on the bench and I overlooked the garden in solitude. I meditated. I walked around the structure, taking in the panoramic splendor of all the flowers and plants. And then, I did what I’ve been dreaming of for so long. I squatted down and felt the earth. I picked up the soil and let it sift through my hands. It has been 21 years.”

The Solitary Garden Project is just one piece of Visualizing Abolition, which on Tuesday was awarded a $1.977 million grant by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, a New York-based nonprofit that supports the arts and humanities.

The Visualizing Abolition initiative was founded in 2019 by Rachel Nelson, director of the Institute of Arts and Sciences, and Gina Dent, an associate professor of feminist studies at UCSC. The program is made up of graduate student interns and faculty, who put together the Solitary Garden Project, the “Barring Freedom” exhibition at the San Jose Museum of Art, and the online Visualizing Abolition speaker series.

Visualizing Abolition was originally set to last only four years, but with the help of this new grant, it will be funded for another three.

“It feels like this is a payoff in a different way,” Aaron Samuel Mulenga, one of the graduate students working on the project, told Lookout. “I think there are multiple ways in which Visualizing Abolition has been meaningful and impactful, and so then to have a grant of this nature say, ‘We see the work you’re doing, and we want you to continue doing the work you’re doing,’ I think is a powerful statement.”

The grant will fund projects like new exhibitions, concerts at the SFJAZZ Center, enhancing the Visualizing Abolition website, and new UCSC courses and curriculum about mass incarceration and abolition. Although nothing is set in stone, Dent envisions the classes to be spread out across different departments, with the possibility of streamlining those courses into a concentration.

“I was, of course, incredibly excited and challenged by the work that we have ahead of us,” Dent said. “And thrilled to know that I’ve been able to experience this incredible transition in the course of my own lifetime, where work that I had really wanted to do decades earlier, is now so valued and considered so necessary.”

She said the grant would also allow Visualizing Abolition to continue its work with currently and formerly incarcerated students by improving their access to higher education.

A replica of a San Quentin prison cell in the Solitary Garden Project on the UCSC campus.
The Visualize Abolition initiative is behind the replica of a San Quentin prison cell in the Solitary Garden Project on the UCSC campus.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Art, prisons and abolition

Nelson said one of the key aspects in forming Visualizing Abolition was finding the role art plays in the discussion of prison abolition — which aligns with the Institute of Arts and Sciences’ focus on highlighting community issues through visual art.

“I really think that the arts provide interesting avenues into addressing issues which people feel are very familiar to them but allow us to approach it in new ways,” Nelson said. “And that was something that Gina was also really interested in thinking about, the way that art could help us think differently or reimagine our relationship with prisons.”

The online speaker series has seen the likes of activist and author Angela Davis and Bryan Stevenson, director of the Equal Justice Initiative, and has reached at least 20,000 people across the U.S. COVID-19 pushed the series from in-person to virtual; similarly, the “Barring Freedom” art exhibition was initially set to debut on the UCSC campus in spring 2020 but was pushed to last October and moved to the San Jose Museum of Art.

Mulenga worked on “Barring Freedom,” interviewing artists and establishing the website. At the start of the pandemic, he moved back to his native Zambia, where he continued to work with Visualizing Abolition.

Despite the nine-hour time difference, the History of Art and Visual Culture graduate student said he felt inspired to picture what abolition could look like in his home country.

“These conversations need to keep happening, where it’s like, how do barriers get broken down, how do we work with other spaces and be very conscious of the way in which we are engaging, and how do we sympathize with issues that relate to both spaces,” Mulenga said. “I was very much moved to think about what that could look like in Zambia.”

Graduate student and Institute of Art and Sciences fellow Alexandra Moore, co-curator of “Barring Freedom,” looked forward to Visualizing Abolition spreading its wings even more.

“I’m thrilled and very excited for Gina and Rachel and for the Institute and everyone involved. It enables the work to happen at a different scale, and with more financial backing,” she said. “I think it’s pretty transformative for what the program can do and for the level of ambition that the projects can have.”

Visualizing Abolition will sponsor a film screening Oct. 21-28 of “Since I Been Down,” Gilda Sheppard’s award-winning documentary about the rising rates of incarceration in Tacoma, Washington, and its effects on Black and Brown youth. The next installment in the Visualizing Abolition speaker series will be a conversation with Sheppard and author Adrienne Maree Brown on Oct. 26.

“This is a transformative gift for UC Santa Cruz,” Chancellor Cynthia Larive said in a news release. “Visualizing Abolition is poised to be one of the largest, most expansive public scholarship initiatives ever on art and prison abolition. This award allows us to increase the impact and visibility far beyond our university of the important scholarship unfolding on our campus about incarceration and social justice.”

The Solitary Garden Project stands outside the Elena Baskin Visual Arts Center at UC Santa Cruz.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)