By Don Chaddock, InsideCDCR editor
Current mural photos by Eric Owens, CDCR staff photographer
Historic photos courtesy Folsom Prison Museum
While Folsom State Prison inmate Ralph Pecor was no Leonardo da Vinci, in 1938 he did pay homage to the artist by recreating his famous painting, The Last Supper, on the back wall of Greystone Chapel.
More than three-quarters of a century later, the mural is rapidly decaying and a retired Correctional Officer and retired Parole Agent are pushing to restore the artwork.
“It’s absorbing water,” said Lt. Joe Tuggle, the prison’s Public Information Officer.
“Moisture is coming through the granite,” said retired Parole Agent Joel Valencia, who is spearheading the restoration effort. He’s with the planned Big House Museum project as well as the Old Guard Foundation.
Retired Correctional Officer Jim Brown, with the current Folsom Prison Museum, said restoration experts who work with a regional well-known museum pegged the cost of removing it from the wall at $250,000.
They also recommended the mural not be touched because it is too fragile, according to Valencia.
Another restoration expert believes it can be done for between $100,000 and $150,000.
The real question is what to do with the mural once it’s been removed.
“My thought is, this has historical and religious value and it’s a shame it’s in prison,” Valencia said. “The public can’t see it if it’s in prison.”
There is already some money available to go toward at least stabilizing the crumbling mural.
“There was $30,000 donated by the (company) which filmed ‘Walk the Line’ here,” Valencia said. “The (restoration experts) want to go in and stabilize the mural which will cost about $5,000.”
He said it’s the first step in the restoration process.
Eventually, he hopes it can be removed in pieces, reassembled and restored on a material which will not be vulnerable to the climate. He’d like to see it hanging in the planned much larger museum on prison grounds with a replica hanging in the chapel.
“There should be something put back on the chapel wall, whether it’s the original or the duplicate, whatever is decided,” Valencia said.
Did you know?
Legend has it the artist, inmate Ralph Pecor, used the faces of other inmates and prison staff as those of the disciples and his own face as Jesus.
Pecor also painted a dozen other smaller murals, depicting scenes of historic significance, in the Officers Dining Room at the prison.
Greystone Chapel in song
According to the Sacramento Historical Society’s “Golden Notes” (Volume 39, Numbers 3 and 4), construction of the chapel was completed in 1903. The historical society notes the famous granite walls surrounding the prison weren’t completed until the late 1920s.
The chapel was made famous by the Johnny Cash song, “Greystone Chapel,” which he performed live at Folsom State Prison in 1968 and was included in his album, “At Folsom Prison.” The lyrics to the song were penned by prison inmate Glen Sherley.
Years later, Cash recounted in a magazine interview how his performance of the song came about. He said he heard a tape of the song, recorded by Sherley, the night before he was going to perform at the prison. He told Life magazine in 1994, after only hearing the song once, he knew he needed to perform it the following day.
“So I stayed up and learned it, and the next day the (chapel’s) preacher had him in the front row,” Cash said in the interview. “I announced, ‘This song was written by Glen Sherley.’ It was a terrible, terrible thing to point him out among all those cons, but I didn’t think about that then.”
An ally from Los Angeles
The effort to restore the mural has gotten a boost from the Johnny Cash tribute band The Walking Phoenixes. The Los Angeles-based musical group has performed in Folsom a few times over the last three years and have virtually adopted the city. The band created a website to help with the fundraising efforts.
“I have been blessed to be part of this wonderful mission of developing a fundraiser for the restoration of the Last Supper Mural hanging on the wall of the Greystone Chapel,” lead singer Drew Young writes on the website. “Over the past three years of spending time in Folsom with the Correctional Officers of Folsom Prison, I have become inspired by the incredible courage of the correctional officers and the history of (the) prison and the inmates.”
(Editor’s note: Some websites may not be accessible from a CDCR computer.)
Learn more about the project at https://www.folsomprisonlastsupper.org/.
Learn more about the Folsom Prison Museum at https://folsomprisonmuseum.org/.