A 2007 outdoor concert at San Quentin State Prison featuring musician Michael Franti inspired San Rafael photographer Peter Merts as he documented the joy and excitement of the inmates.
She volunteers for the show’s creator, Corte Madera nonprofit Bread & Roses Presents, Merts never knew that a chance encounter that day would lead him on an amazing life journey that would take him to all 36 California prisons over the next 15 years.
Merts also had no way of knowing that at that time, his reputation for capturing the behavior of prisoners as expressed through art, music and theater would reach such an extent that the California Arts Council granted him an “arts in correction” grant to support the last 15. months of his odyssey.
In June, Merts released a glossy hardcover book of his favorite prison photos. The book, “Ex Crucible: The Passion of Incarcerated Artists,” was published by the Daylight Community Arts Foundation.
It won praise from high-profile supporters of prison arts programs, including Academy Award-winning actor and director Tim Robbins, the artistic director of an inmate theater program called Actors’ Gang.
“In these pictures, you will see the great change that will happen to people when they are reminded of their worth and value through participation in music, visual arts and sports programs,” Robbins wrote in testimony in Merts’ book.
Merts began his career shooting music photos for private shows at a Bay Area institution while working as a staff member and then volunteering at Bread & Roses.
Marian Hubler, vice president and producer at Bread & Roses, will interview Merts and lead him through a slide show of his paintings and the stories behind them on a live show at 4 p.m. Aug. 16. Program, part of Bread & Roses’ “Music and More” online book club series, is free and open to the public. Registration is available by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hubler said he has known and worked with Merts for decades. Employees at Bread & Roses saw his talent early, he said.
“We soon realized that he had an amazing ability to film the interactions between our volunteers and the individual audiences we serve in institutional settings,” Hubler said. “His work at Bread & Roses soon added writing to our San Quentin music program. “
After leaving the nonprofit staff, Merts continued to serve as a volunteer at Bread & Roses will “continue to fade” for decades to come, he said.
It was at Bread & Roses-sponsored Franti concert at San Quentin in 2007 when his path deviated from visiting and photographing different types of organizations for art classes and music shows to a greater focus on art, music and theater programs at California state prisons.
“I was taking in a Michael Franti concert the other day, and a guy who ran the arts programs at San Quentin came up to me,” Merts, 75, said. “He said, hey, if you like music here at San Quentin, we have a lot of other programs, too — why don’t you come check it out?
Word got around the California corrections circuit. Merts soon criss-crossed the county to visit arts programs in outlying prison towns such as Corcoran, Crescent City and Susanville. Pictures of other prison towns are taken in an appendix to the book.
Originally from Georgia, Merts earned a bachelor’s degree from Duke University in North Carolina before coming to California in 1975. He lived in Berkeley and San Francisco before moving to Marin in 1977.
His association Bread & Roses started when he attended a three-day music festival at the Greek Theater in Berkeley. Mimi Fariña, the late founder of Bread & Roses, spoke at the festival about the organization.
Later, Merts was working at La Petite Cafe at the Strawberry Shopping Center in Mill Valley when Fariña entered the restaurant. He introduced himself and told her that he had heard her talking. He said he would be interested in serving lunch at the next Greek Theater performance for all the backstage crew and volunteer actors if the restaurant owner agreed.
The owner agreed. The merger was made. A little later, in 1978, Merts answered the task of sending Bread & amp; Roses. He was hired, staying on staff to film and produce shows until about 1981.
At one concert early in his career, Merts saw the response of the audience, many of whom had been isolated for long periods of time through institutionalization or incarceration.
“I said to myself, ‘This is amazing — someone has to write it,'” he recalls. “I bought a used camera.”
Merts took some classes, but mostly taught himself the ropes of photography — a skill he would go on to use at Bread & Roses and other bands for the next 40 years. He still volunteers for the organization when he can, he said.
During that time, Merts kept his day job as a computer analyst for Levi Strauss and Gap Inc., quitting in 2014. Since then, photography has been his sole occupation.
For the book, Merts whittled down his collection of thousands of images to those that clearly showed the passion that inmates were able to tap into through art, music and theater, he said.
“In this time of great social unrest, when many people see the deep damage of racism, economic injustice and mass incarceration, Merts’ work shines and shines,” said Annie Buckley, professor of art at San Diego State. The university, said in an article in Merts’ book called “The Persistent Kindness of Looking.”
“His illuminating focus and dedication to making deeply personal and graceful portraits – of creative processes that most people will never see or participate in – provides a window into a unique experience of the prison experience,” Buckley said.
Merts’ book is available from booksellers and through his website, petermerts.com.