From death row, artist William Noguera writes a spirit-liberating memoir
By Lou Fancher
As a boy growing up in Southern California’s Hacienda Heights and eager to please his abusive, alcoholic but charismatic father, William A. Noguera became skilled in martial arts. Yet, as the only Colombian student at the private schools his striving, mentally unstable mother forced him to attend, he found those skills an inadequate defense against racist bullies. During his teens, surfing, skipping school, popping the anabolic steroids his father encouraged him to take, he added marijuana and harsher drugs, and his roiling inner anger turned outward. He turned to gang life and souping up stolen vehicles and, most tragically, ending the life of his girlfriend’s mother during an incident of blind rage.
Sentenced for murder Jan. 28, 1988, Noguera, now 53, was shackled and confined to death row in San Quentin State Prison. Miraculously, while continuing to defend himself from rapists and murderers in prison, Noguera began to create handmade art. The graceful, ink-stippled, hyper-realistic, monochromatic renditions of people, street scenes, landscapes and objects are broken into prismatic sections by geometric overlays based on mathematical equations he sees as shapes. In 2004, abstraction and color took over, resulting in bold, fractured, drip-and-splatter, neo-cubist paintings.
More recently, seated in his 4-by-10 foot cell on an overturned 5-gallon bucket, with yellow legal notepad balanced on a flipped-over mattress and Bic pen in hand, Noguera has hand written “Escape Artist ” (Seven Stories Press, $28.95, 448 pages), a memoir of his life up to 2011.
During a phone interview from San Quentin, the call is splintered — an ironic echo of both Noguera’s art and his everyday existence. At frequent intervals, a voice breaks in, announcing the call is being monitored and recorded. Noguera is allowed only 15 minutes per call: A 75-minute interview involves repeated interruptions and a two-minute wait while a new call is initiated.
To summarize his life story must have seemed insurmountable, despite his articulate language and a photographic memory that operates like an internal Google and allowed him to write the memoir without a journal, notes or internet access. His first handwritten draft was 200,000 words. Cutting out roughly 65,000 words nearly broke his spirit. Finding an agent and publisher was tedious, slowed by necessary prison bureaucracy. Authenticity was the ultimate goal: The stories that remain vividly describe danger — in childhood from his parents and bullies, in prison showers and exercise yards from guards and inmates, but most powerfully by physical incarceration and the workings of a mind subjected to fear, boredom, scrutiny, hatred. “All the things in the book were so dramatic that they were imprinted in me. I don’t remember finishing one page without being in tears. They affected me so deeply,” he says.
Although Noguera seeks to be appreciated as an artist independent of circumstances, even he acknowledges that his story demands attention. Imprisoned since age 19, an inmate in a brutal, violent climate for more than 30 years and never formally trained as a painter or writer, he nonetheless produces expressive, award-winning art that is astonishing, as is the clarity and well-crafted technique of his literary voice. (He cannot profit from sales; financial proceeds go to charities or the family’s trust.)
“In 2011 when I first began to write, there was brutality in every form (around me). I realized that just creating art, creating pretty pictures, I wasn’t doing enough. Given my childhood, teenage years, young adult and adulthood, I thought there was more I could do,” he says about why he began to write. “I wanted to touch one person, one child, one teenager with the sense that he’s not alone. The book gives me the ability to touch people in a way that accepts that debt that I owe. If you believe in rehabilitation, the book makes perfect sense.”
The “sacrificed child” he writes of and says was a mask worn to hide fear and combat pain has gradually faded. In prison, a steely moral compass replaced it: He writes in the memoir of maintaining a vigilant, wary, extremely disciplined lethality. “For a long time, my art was about escape. It was draw, paint escape. I wanted to make art people would like. The hyper realistic art got attention, but a part of me wasn’t satisfied.”
The fragmented abstract landscapes he now creates are charged with emotion by the addition of color. “I can convey the conflict that begins inside of me to the viewer so they can experience the landscape of my confinement as if they, too, are in crisis.”
But images are ultimately abstract, and turning to words is for Noguera a redemptive act to undo with his hands what he once did with his hands.
Noguera’s escape or redemption — freedom — may come only through art. His case remains, after nearly 30 years, in front of California’s Supreme Court and a federal Court of Appeals. He is currently writing part two of the memoir, covering his journey of rehabilitation from 2011 to today. “It’s about making a difference, accepting responsibility,” he says. “The motive behind the work is like many artists’: I wanted to be understood.”
Asked what life he’d choose, if he were to be granted freedom but forbidden to ever paint again, Noguera is certain. “I can tell you today that a part of me would definitely suffer if I could not paint. But I would sacrifice that to be free of the world I’ve had to be in for the past 34 years. I believe there’s a lot I could do, free of this place.”