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

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In the decades since they first cropped up, paños have become less utilitarian and more a vehicle for highly elaborate and deeply personal art, making them a fit for exhibitions throughout the world. Some paño makers cut the cloth into shapes—ovals, stars, a cross—and fray the edges, which they then meticulously braid back together using other materials, like elastic from socks, to make a pattern resembling a doily.

This incredible and painstaking attention to detail—and outpouring of emotion— captured the attention of Rudy Padilla, a youth development professional from New Mexico. Padilla first saw paños at neighbors’ houses in Barelas, in the Albuquerque inner city. He began collecting the small cloths around 1991, immersed himself in the subculture, and became an authority on the subject. In the mid-nineties, the National Museum of American History solicited Padilla’s insight on paños and in the process acquired some pieces from his collection. Padilla also introduced paños to a TV audience, when he introduced Evangeline Griego, a Los Angeles filmmaker from New Mexico, to the art form. In 1996 Griego’s fascination led her to make Paño Arte: Images from Inside, a 31-minute documentary that was broadcast on PBS. For her film, she visited the infamous New Mexico State Penitentiary, the site of a heinous riot in 1980, and interviewed prisoners as well as their families, putting a face on paños.

“The paño is a reminder that ‘I’m relevant, I’m still here. I’ve got these human feelings even though I’m locked up,’” Griego said.

In the process, Griego learned several nuances about this insular underworld. For one, paños aren’t typically framed and hanged by the families who receive them, like in a gallery. Instead, they are treated as keepsakes, usually folded and archived, perhaps in a box, or bound together by the year. Paños often aren’t signed by their creators, which is perhaps attributed to the fact that paños are created by a relatively small community of artistic prisoners who many times are commissioned by fellow prisoners to make pieces in exchange for things like cigarettes, shampoo, and even immunity from other prisoners. Sometimes the artist makes a template, a copia, for others to trace and maybe embellish with their own touch.

“You see some of these paños—I mean, Escher couldn’t have done better,” Griego said.

Griego’s documentary helped launch a paño fascination among art collectors. Reno Leplat-Torti, a young French Renaissance man who dabbles in art, music, and film, became an avid collector, amassing more than two hundred paños, mostly from California. (His collection can be seen at nationculblanc.com, including this paño from 1934 featuring a poem titled “Prison Love,” signed by an inmate calling himself “Cannon-Ball.”)

A few of Leplat-Torti’s paños will be in the “Tattooists, Tattooed” exhibition opening in May at Quai Branly, a folk-art museum in Paris. This follows last year’s fifty-fifth Venice Biennale, which displayed paños belonging to Martha Henry and David Joralemon, two New York-based art collectors.

Ed Jordan, a 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.

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