Unlocking History

Artists made mark at California Medical Facility

Mexican musicians painted on prison wall.
Carlos Licon's mural at CMF depicts Mexican heritage and culture.

Decades-long arts program expanded to other prisons

By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor
Office of Public and Employee Communications

In 1961, California Medical Facility (CMF) launched an arts program almost by accident when the superintendent at the time wanted the walls of the dining hall painted. Superintendent William Keating enlisted some artistically inclined inmates for the task.

Painting of man in tie and jacket.
Inmate painting of Superintendent Dr. William Keating. He served as CMF superintendent from 1960 to 1965.

“What started as a simple dining room improvement program has developed into a nationally famous art colony,” reads a 1965 brochure produced by CMF inmates for a spring art show. “(The superintendent) assigned a couple of inmates to create some paintings (for the walls). This accomplished, the artists asked for permission to continue painting. Other inmates expressed an interest in art. The idea caught on and more of the men discovered art as a method of self-expression. An art colony was born.”

In 1965, there were 150 inmates “participating in art, sculpture, ceramics and marquetry. Instruction is available to those who wish it, however, the artists are encouraged to help each other,” the brochure states.

The brochure also highlights the various artists participating in the show, including 36-year-old Carlos Licon, who had also served time at San Quentin, and 31-year-old musician Gino Vittori.

“(Licon) attended art school in Los Angeles (and) has won many awards including best of show at Brandeis University and CMF. (Licon) also won the director’s award in a Modesto showing. (He) expresses deep emotion in his paintings and has a distinctive style of his own. (He) is a parole violator serving a narcotics sentence,” the brochure states.

“Vittori attended San Francisco State College … majoring in music and studying design and sculpture. He has been a professional musician for 14 years and worked with the late jazz singer Billie Holiday (and) toured Europe with Paul Anka. He recorded with the bands of Chet Baker and Romano Mussolini as well as heading his own trio,” the brochure states. “He has become seriously involved in painting during the past year.”

The 1963 spring art show brochure highlights the rehabilitative aspect of art.

“For several years, California prisons have encouraged art as a means of releasing pent-up emotions of men in confinement. San Quentin and Folsom, as well as institutions in Southern California, have encouraged art as an integral part of their hobby programs,” according to the pamphlet. “The institution employs Wilson H. Elledge, a man trained and educated in the crafts, to supervise this and other related projects, and to act as art show coordinator.”

Many saw it as a step toward reentering society.

“The inmates themselves place a value on art as a means of bridging the wide gap between imprisonment and their eventual return to normal life,” it states. “No man to date who has been a participant in the program and followed it upon release, has been returned to prison. … California has long been the acknowledged leader in correctional trends. Art is only one of the many progressive programs whereby your tax dollars are invested in the constructive future of a man who has offended society’s laws.”

Narcotics landed 37-year-old Raymond Rowley King at CMF.

“In 1948, King began his study of art at the San Diego School of Arts and Crafts in La Jolla. He has operated his own studio as an architectural illustrator in Los Angeles and has worked as a cartoon animator for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios. King’s illustrations have been published by ‘Sea’ magazine,” the pamphlet states.

Later, the art program evolved to become today’s Arts in Corrections. CMF was the site of the original official pilot program in 1977 and was expanded to other institutions in 1980.

Who was Carlos Licon?

Side and front prison photo of man with words C.M. Licon, B52533, Calif. Prison.
Carlos M. Licon’s state prison mugshot, 1976. From California State Archives.

As a young man, Licon painted the backdrops for the Padua Hills Theater in Pomona. He served in the U.S. Navy from 1948 to 1951. The same year he left the Navy, he did a turn on stage playing one of the romantic roles in “El Gallito.”

According to various reports, he earned a scholarship to the Chouinard School of Arts in Los Angeles.

His arrest record dates back to the 1950s. In 1960, he was sent to CMF and, already an artist, began participating in the new art rehabilitation program at the facility.

He also briefly served time in 1970 at Folsom State Prison and Sierra Conservation Center.

According to court records, on Aug. 14, 1973, a card game turned to violence after Licon accused another player of cheating. When the victim went to use the restroom, Licon followed and they began arguing. Licon drew a pistol from his shirt and fired two shots, both striking the victim. Licon fled the scene but was found later hiding in a large garbage bin. He was charged with assault with a deadly weapon and being a felon in possession of a firearm.

He was sentenced to five-years-to-life and was received at CMF on Nov. 14, 1973. He was paroled in 1976.

“(Licon) is an exceptionally good artist (and) is preparing for a one-man art show in July 1977. His spare time is spent painting and sitting on his front porch,” according to a parole report dated May 25, 1977.

The report also said he was adjusting very well to parole. He was discharged from parole on July 1, 1978. Licon died in 1982 at age 53.

His paintings have been exhibited in galleries throughout California. Today, Licon’s paintings are collectors’ items.

At CMF, his massive three-wall mural, dubbed “California Heritage,” can still be seen. It is believed to have been painted in the early 1970s.

Painting of Father Serra, California Mission and man picking grapes.
Carlos Licon’s murals document California’s history from a cultural perspective.