Gary Harrell - Paroled 2020

Artist Statement

I started making art in 1985, eight years into a prison sentence that I would serve until 2020—forty-five years in all. Before being incarcerated, I had played the harmonica and ridden a unicycle without falling off, which is itself a kind of art. But I had never considered turning to visual art until I saw other men in prison making it. I started out doing woodwork and molding glass and plastic. As I began liking and improving my craft—expanding into new media like block prints and advanced techniques like pointillism—the meaning of art changed for me. It transformed from a desire and a hobby into a need and a vocation. I wondered how different my circumstances might have been had I discovered this passion earlier in my life.

My art comes from a wellspring of visions that I do not fully control or understand. Sometimes I am inspired by pictures, in the news or in a book, or recent or historical events. Most of the time, however, an image flashes in my mind. I might be on a walk or in the middle of a conversation when this image arrives, and I know I must use it so it does not go away. Even my most political art begins with an image, not a message. “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot,” about police brutality, began with an image of a boy raising his hands; “Divas,” about the strength of women, began with an image of childbirth. In producing each image, I have a practice of studying reference points. In what contexts has that image appeared? How have other artists represented it? Then I choose a medium that fits the image. For example, if I see many objects vying for attention, I tend to make a collage to accommodate them.

Artist Bio

By trade Gary Harrell is an artist, entrepreneur, craftsman, and a harmonica blues musician. He was born in Spring Hill, Louisiana, and was raised in Orange County, California. He now resides in Sacramento, California with his wife. In 1977 Gary was incarcerated at San Quentin Prison where he served his sentence until he was paroled in 2020. Gary’s work has been included in many exhibitions including: Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration, 2020, MoMa PS1, New York and touring throughout the country; Meet Us Quickly: Painting for Justice from Prison, 2020, Museum of the African Diaspora. Other venues include: University of Derby, England; Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco; Art in Action Gallery, Flagstaff; Cooper Hewitt Museum, Smithsonian, New York; Kala Art Institute, Berkeley; The Washington Post and others. Gary is currently a 2023 Right of Return fellow.  The Sacramento Bee wrote a profile about him in May 2023.

Contact Information

To see more of Gary’s work and contact him directly for purchases go to his website

Artwork Detail: Manifesto, C.K. Gerhartsreiter AKA TAFKA Clark Rockefeller, 2022