Handkerchief Drawings by Hispanic Inmates in Texas Prisons
A Collection and Essay by Ed Jordan
Designs with ballpoint pens on white handkerchiefs that the inmate has to purchase from the prison commissary are often highly detailed and complex illustrations that tell the inmate's story or visions in art, rather than words. As the Mexican culture is a visual culture for the most part, the paño prison art styles and techniques are passed down from prisoner to prisoner. In the case of the ever-popular Virgen de Guadalupe image, often a stencil is made and passed on or sold to another inmate. One of these I have seen has probably been used by several inmates to copy onto a handkerchief. The Disney characters are also copied this way and then personalized by the artist and sent to a beloved child.
Much like the images used by the Kuna Indians of Panama, the paño images are from calendars, magazines, tattoos, and a variety of other sources. They are traced onto the cloth and drawn with ballpoint pens, then often colored with colored pencils. Sometimes if the artist lacks colored pencils, the paños are stained and colored with coffee, wax crayons, shoe polish, felt-tip markers, or whatever else might be available. One artist had a great time with a lipstick, probably stolen from a female employee of that prison.
The commissary handkerchiefs are the most popular cloths to use, but if the inmate cannot afford them, bed sheets and pillow cases of similar texture are used. Please note the painstaking work on several of these examples that have fringes made one after another by hand, and then consider the time this must have taken.
As a collector of this art form, I was told many times by the inmate artist that the paño I was expecting to receive had been confiscated in one of the many prison security crackdowns or raids. The guards would have instructions to raid the cells, and almost all materials found would be taken and destroyed as the prison employees searched for illegal contraband.
As the art form has become more popular, the art has often become more sophisticated, and the talent inherent in many of the inmates has resulted in some amazing renderings. Many of the artists started signing their work, and museums, folk art collectors, and galleries have started collecting them.
I did not start collecting paños until about 1994. After graduating with a B.F.A. from The University of Texas and a tour of Europe with the U.S. Army, I ended up in Dallas and became the art director of an advertising agency associated with the American Association of Advertising Agencies, where I handled the advertising for the State Fair of Texas and its many smaller entities in the 1960s and '70s. While serving as a design director and troubleshooter for a national packaging firm, I later participated in many art fairs, as well as nationwide museum and gallery shows (including 25 years exhibiting at the fabled Laguna Gloria Fiesta). In the summer of 1988, Blinn College of Brenham called to ask me to become the art instructor at their "Bastrop Campus," which they admitted was within the Federal Correctional Institution outside that city. Their current instructor was leaving for another position.
While teaching, I became aware of a new art form for me, the paño. Since I was forbidden to take anything in or out of the prison, it was only after the school closed down several years later that I was able to begin building this collection. I contacted one of my former students, Paul Young, who was by then finishing a term in a Texas prison, and asked him to look for paños for me. In addition to this collection of paños, I also amassed a large collection of Mexican folk art. Paul is responsible for most of my collection and found my best artist, Ruben Magallon, whose many paños you will see in this exhibit. I would have asked Paul and Ruben to be here to share credit for this wonderful art form and their work, but Paul died recently, and Ruben disappeared after his release from prison.
Paños/Pañuelos is on display at Texas Folklife Gallery
August 1 - October 25, 2013
Opening Reception - Sunday, August 18, 2:00 to 4:00 PM
Commentary by Ed Jordan and Refreshments: free and open to the public