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Con Artist
Dannie Martin

Stephen Dubov--artist, teacher, and longtime San Franciscan--
now creates in the federal penitentiary system.

Stephen Dubov is a 50-year-old artist from San Francisco with a resume that includes a substantial body of work, including a 20-foot-high hammered steel sculpture standing in front of the Stanford Art Museum, an MFA from Stanford, nine years as a tenured professor at Sonoma State University, and a longer prison sentence than Charles Manson's.

Dubov, whose work can be found in museums and private collections throughout the U.S., was arrested in 1987 for possession of 13 kilos of cocaine. He had several prior offenses, two for small amounts of cocaine, two for marijuana, one for contributing to the delinquency of a minor. U.S. District Court judge John P. Vukasin told Dubov that he didn't show enough remorse for his crime and banned him from society. Forever. Even Manson comes up for parole now and then.

I met Dubov at the Federal Correctional Institution in Phoenix when I was an inmate there. By the time I was paroled in 1991, we had become good friends. When I returned in October to the federal penitentiary system, specifically, to the prison at Terminal Island in Southern California, Dubov had since been transferred there. I looked him up.

Like most long-term convicts, I've often thought about what it would be like to have a life sentence without parole. When I see him, I don't mention his sentence. But I do ask how he's been since we last saw each other.

"Same old thing. It's depressing," he responded. "No matter what I do or think or dream, there's always the knowledge there that I'm doing life. That fact sits on the edge of my consciousness like one of those devices they use to keep cars from going over 50 miles an hour.

Dubov is a tall slim man with a thick shock of white hair on each side of his head and none on top. He moves slowly with a distinctive gait that seems reserved to abstract artists and absentminded scholars.

It doesn't surprise me that when I tell him I've been wanting to read The Thief's Journal by Jean Genet, he says, "I have it in my cell, I'll bring it to you at dinnertime. Reading and art come naturally to Dubov. His mother, who is 76 now and thoroughly pissed off at him for getting himself a life sentence , ran a bookstore in Abilene, Texas, where he grew up. She now resides in Austin, where Stephen's brother, Phillip, is an assistant dean with the art department at the University of Texas.

"They are very supportive of me, and we all hope that someday I'll get this sentence changed so that I'm eligible for parole. But with all the political hysteria now and the demand for even longer sentences, it doesn't look good," Dubov says wistfully.

Upon his imprisonment in 1987, Dubov had to quit working in steel as his artistic medium, as metalwork is not allowed in prison. Instead he works in ceramics, draws with pencil and paper, and teaches. Much of his current work appears to me as something chaotic attempting to break free of monolithic conforming structures. But perhaps I see only a metaphor for what his life is like.

When I left Phoenix in `91, Dubov was making ceramic planters and vases. But on my return in `93 I find he's doing something in clay that is mind-boggling.

"I call them `Vens,' after Venus," he says while showing me a 4-foot-high sculpture of a woman. It's a terra-cotta piece that I feel compelled to touch, perhaps because she looks so pristine and untouchable. There's something unsettling about the work.

Dubov, in a 1993 letter to his brother, since published as part of his creative and defense efforts, talked about his "Vens" series:

"I've always been impressed with herms [stone busts mounted on square pillars] and the linear support on Egyptian pieces, the ways they define and support the form. So then it came to me, the delta as opposed to the square, the `V' of Venus, women (which I sorely miss) the boundaries ... a way of coming back to basics, making `Vens.'"

Some of Dubov's thinking is far beyond me. But what I'm looking at is a standing woman triangulated in a shape that merges with the base of the figure. It's hard to imagine the planning and work that goes into each one. The hobby shop is open for two and a half hours on three weekday evenings and for five hours on Saturday and Sunday. There's only one small kiln, and space is severely limited.

"It takes about 50 or 60 hands-on hours to complete one of these," the artist said. "The one we're looking at is the 21st in a series. I try to do one a month, and I've been working on Vens for two years now."

I know that over the years Dubov has given most of his artwork away, as I have some of it at home. "I've been sending them to friends, to the lawyers. The same as I've always done," he explained. "Prison allows me to forget sales. The work is done and I send it out. It's like shooting arrows at unseen targets. It's Zen.

During the time Stephen Dubov and I talked in the yard, there were some convicts sitting at a table nearby, commenting on an L.A. Times newspaper photograph of a homeless man emerging from a cardboard-box home with just his head sticking out.

They laughed uproariously at remarks made by two of the group: "I'd blow his fucking head off if I was walking by there," said one. "I'd set the boxes on fire while he slept," added the other.

The recall whistle blew. Dubov lived on the South Yard and I live on the North, so we stood up to go our separate ways.

"You know," he said, "so much of what I've done in the past is theater, as if I'd scripted a dream."

Then he looked toward the table where our neighbors were gathering their newspaper, still guffawing, and added: "But I have to say, my best work, the finest stuff, was made in prison. The gallery of the absurd."

Dannie Martin ©1994      Reprinted by permission of the author
This article first appeared in the San Francisco Bay Guardian