Leadership Without Ego - Part 6: Mayberry with an Edge

Steve Emrick never sought to be a leader—but leadership found him. This is the last in a six-part series of posts based on an interview I conducted with Steve about his three decades running arts programs in California’s prison system. In Section 5, Steve described how arts in the prisons was finally reinstated, addressed critiques of arts in the prisons, and explained how he segued into his current position running all the volunteer programs at San Quentin.

Sarah: You and your family live on the grounds of San Quentin. How did that come about?

Steve: When I applied to transfer from Duel Vocational Institute in Tracy to San Quentin, I told the administrators of San Quentin I needed a house for my family. There are only 85 houses on the grounds, so only a select few get to live here. So when the administrators granted my request, I took it as an acknowledgement of the value of my work.

Sarah: What’s it like to live at San Quentin?

Steve: I think of it as Mayberry with an edge. We live on a quiet, tree-lined street, in a quaint little house that was built in 1920. The gym down the block used to be a schoolhouse. It’s strange because I don’t really engage with most of my neighbors. They think differently about political issues than our family does. But they’re friendly and treat us with respect. We’ve very close to our East Indian neighbors across the street.

I do get to see staff who I work with in a different light because they’re out mowing their lawns. And I’ve been embraced a little more by the correctional staff than I would be if I were just a commuter.

Sarah: Tell me about the “edge” part.

Steve: There’s a gun range not far from our house. You hear the officers practicing. You hear alarms. It’s pretty weird to live prison life 24 hours a day.

 Mayberry with an edge.

Mayberry with an edge.

Sarah: Do you ever feel imprisoned?

Steve: Not at the house. But I get called in a lot on weekends, like if there’s problem at the gate with a volunteer’s paperwork.

On the other hand, we live so close to beauty. I can see Mount Tam from my neighbor’s house. And living here has provided great opportunities for my family. Dana has taught at San Francisco State for years and is teaching middle school in Marin now. And my daughter has been able to attend good schools in the area.

Sarah: Do you have any regrets about paths not taken?

Steve: No. Social justice work has changed my understanding of art’s purpose. I learned that art can be a lifeline for someone. When I went through my MFA program, I got caught up in academics and art criticism. Now, I don’t care if someone in an art class can only make a terrible scribble. If they’re making it, I’m excited about it. And if they’re excited about it, I love it.

It hasn’t just changed how I feel about teaching art; it’s also changed my approach to my own art. Before, I’d gotten all stuffy. I thought I needed to have gallery exhibits and be recognized in that way. Now I just want to make things, explore, without the need for it to go anywhere in particular.

I read something about how some Native American tribes pick leaders. The person they choose as a leader isn’t the person who wants to be the leader. I can relate to that. It wasn’t my vision to be running prison art programs or do what I’m doing now. It happened through a series of missteps. But I’ve learned that I do have an ability to work with people. I’ve left a bigger footprint than if I’d had a solo art career and pieces in galleries. I can point to a guy who came from a background of doing harm, and who learned in prison to make classical guitars and still makes them. And they sell for five to 10 thousand bucks each.

Sarah: Describe your art.

Steve: I make fine-art furniture. The pieces are functional and sculptural at the same time. I primarily work in wood but I sometimes inlay stone or other materials. These are one-of-a-kind or limited-edition pieces. It’s different from traditional woodworking, which requires a certain kind of exacting work. This work is exacting too but at the same time it’s more freeform; it evolves as I work on it.

Early in my art career I worked making guitars, and a lot of my pieces are influenced by that—the bending and shaping of the wood; the finishes I use.

 Hall Table (black granite and bent laminate plywood)

Hall Table (black granite and bent laminate plywood)

 Writing Desk (bent and formed plywood; figured maple veneer)

Writing Desk (bent and formed plywood; figured maple veneer)

 Jewelry Box (dyed walnut and maple)

Jewelry Box (dyed walnut and maple)

Sarah: What do you want to do next?

Steve: I haven’t been actively doing my art so I’m not sure how it will evolve. I do want to do pieces about my prison experience. I want to do something related to the huge, rusted iron doors and entranceways at San Quentin. They’re over 160 years old. When I leave the prison, I go through what’s called a sally port, then into a cage, through another door, and finally reach the outside. It’s always a relief to get out of the main perimeter of the prison. Inside, something could happen. Outside, I’m free to walk. I’m always thinking about the parallel between that and art. Art frees your mind. I want to make a doorway. And what would be inside would be an open cabinet, or multiple doors that would open.

 Sally port.

Sally port.

 Original metal gate.

Original metal gate.

 Exit door.

Exit door.

I’d also like to take a printmaking class and work in two dimensions. And I contemplate writing about my experience. But that will have to wait until I’ve gotten some distance from this environment.

Sarah: Where will you live when you no longer live at San Quentin?

Steve: I’ve worked in the prisons for almost 30 years now. At some point I’d like to live closer to nature and have an art studio. I picture having a cup of coffee on the porch and not needing to be anywhere. I’m also looking forward to more family time and more travel.

Sarah: What else would you like to say?

Steve: Once I’m done with this work I’d like to have more interaction with the men I’ve worked with in the past. I’m connected with guys who are doing well, and once I’m not working for the Department of Corrections I’ll be more free to interact with them, do projects with them, and advocate for them. Beyond working with guys I know personally, I want to help support the reentry of inmates into society. I’ve spent all these years focused on helping people inside but there’s a big need for support on the outside. So I’m looking forward to that.