How Prison Art From Texas Captured the Art World's Attention

Paños, small cloth swatches decorated with detailed illustrations by inmates, now hang in New York museums and are snapped up by worldly collectors.
Thu February 13, 2014 8:45 am

folk-art collector from Austin, became aware of paños in the late eighties while working as an art instructor at Blinn College’s Bastrop campus, which happened to be located in the federal prison there. (Yes, you read that correctly—for about a decade, Blinn College, whose main campus is in Brenham, offered satellite classes to inmates at the Federal Correctional Institution, in Bastrop.) When the program ended in the mid-nineties, Jordan said he was told to "trash, burn, or take home any leftover art, supplies, and so on.” He brought everything home and donated most of the supplies to local charities. He stayed in touch with former students, who helped him acquire 63 paños. From August to October of last year, the Austin nonprofit Texas Folklife displayed some of them in the exhibition, “Paño Art: Handkerchief Drawings from Texas Prisons.”

It would appear the hip art scene has become enamored of the savage soft side. Considering the popularity of tattoos, and how intertwined paño art is with tattoos, it makes sense. Plus, the curious ways of acquiring paños is half the fun for the collector.

Paño art: Luis A. Martinez. Photograph by Josh Huskin.

Centro Cultural Aztlán inherited the paños-for-sale program from Kathy Vargas, the visual arts director for the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center, a San Antonio nonprofit founded in 1980 to promote contemporary Hispanic culture and arts. Vargas had sold the paños in the gift shop since the early nineties. She got them from Alex Rubio, the current artist in residence at the Blue Star Contemporary Art Museum and a former instructor in the Bexar County jail arts program.

Vargas filtered the proceeds back into the prisoners’ commissary accounts, creating not only an income stream for them but also a way for prisoners to get recognized for their art. When Vargas left the Guadalupe Center around 2000 to become a photography professor at the University of the Incarnate Word, she was part of an exodus of staff. This exodus was unsettling to her and prompted her to gift the paños to Centro.

“The sales went on for years and nobody said anything,” Gonzalez-Cid said.

But then the political climate changed. According to a report this past November on an NPR's Latino U.S.A. , paños are now illegal in Texas jails. Hard-nosed policies regarding prisoner freedoms proliferated under Governor George W. Bush and Governor Rick Perry, virtually eradicating the enrichment programs funded by Governor Ann Richards during the early nineties, which had helped spawn a golden age of paño-making in Texas.

“After Governor Richards’s term, art rehab classes in prison were closed and making paños wasn’t allowed,” Henry, the New York art collector who was cited in the NPR report, told me in an email.

Jail arts programs were largely responsible for making paños culturally significant. And Bexar County was at the forefront of this movement.

“Bexar County had an amazing jail arts program,” said Glenna Parks, a former instructor during the time the photographer Richard Avedon visited the jail and took shots for his book In the American West . “There was nothing like what Bexar County had going for it.”

In 1979 Bexar County hired Parks to teach English and poetry, and during her tenure at the jail, she also taught studio arts. It was in these classes that the inmates taught her about paños. After seeing what these prisoners were creating, she decided to help focus their energies on honing their work. First, she wanted to get her students to make their art on fabric that was not their bed sheets, whether it be purchased handkerchiefs or free fabrics offered in her class. And then, as the quality of work improved, she aimed to get their art acknowledged. As luck would have it, one of Parks’s former professors at the University of California, San Diego, knew about an exhibition, “The Prison Show: Realities and Representations,” being presented by the Whitney Museum of American Art, in New York, and put Parks in touch with one of the curators. When the show opened in 1981, some of the paños by Bexar County inmates were included. The positive reception to her students’ work later landed Parks an opportunity to write a chapter on paños for the book Folk Art in Texas , published in 1985 by the Texas Folklore Society to celebrate the Texas sesquicentennial.

Paño art: Marcelino Martinez. Photograph by Josh Huskin.

If paños are illegal in Texas jails, some of the prisoners didn’t get the memo. Platon Cruz Torres, 31, has made well over one hundred paños. The Dallas advocacy group Hope for Peace and Justice has even exhibited some of his pieces, thanks to a pen pal relationship that one of their board of directors, DeSorrow Golden, formed with him.

Torres is a prisoner in the McConnell Unit, one of two units in Beeville, about halfway between San Antonio and Corpus Christi. McConnell is notorious for its gang activity and for having some of the most hardened criminals in the Texas prison system. Torres was incarcerated in 2005 for aggravated robbery and is slated for release in 2035, according to his prisoninmates.com site.

Through a series of letters written to Texas Monthly in November, Torres revealed his background, his life in prison, and the mechanics of his trade. His only request in return was to give a “shout-out” to his daughter, Lucia Torres. “I love you, baby girl,” he said. “You stay strong till Daddy comes home!”

Torres was raised in Southeast Houston by parents who were illegal immigrants from Michoacán, Mexico. He said his parents had a lot of problems, and as a result, he and his brothers had the freedom to do whatever they wanted.

“Street gangs, drugs, all that came next,” Torres said. “My thing was ‘taggin.’ I loved the art.”

When Torres was first locked up, he bought a copia. He got comfortable with the repetition of tracing and familiarized himself with his materials. Then he branched out and began creating his own patterns.

“You

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