Get On Your Knees

If Gloria Estefan and Jesus knew how many times their likeness had been immortalized in prison art, they could demand a guest spot on HBO's prison drama Oz. Paño arte, Spanish for "handkerchief art," is currently on display at the Bath House Cultural Center in an exhibition titled Art Behind Bars: Paño Art of Hispanic Inmates. Curators Cynthia Brink and Laray Polk carefully selected the 38 pieces in the show from Rudy Padilla's vast collection of more than 600 paños that range in date from 1959 to the present. Padilla began collecting paños when he started traveling to prisons in the Southwest as an AIDS counselor 15 years ago.

Handkerchiefs are commonly used by inmates because they are legal and readily available through prison commissaries for about 13 cents each. Along with torn bedsheets and pillowcases, which are used when the supply of paños runs out, handkerchiefs commonly serve as portable canvasses for convicts. Ballpoint pens and pencils are used to outline images in tattoo-style art. Popular themes include the Crucifixion, violence, wasted time, and entrapment into the system. Paños are often mailed to relatives and friends or exchanged as internal currency.

The majority of the inmates who created these works have no formal art training, and it shows. A wealth of bland, unoriginal images emerges. The exhibit is filled with tired sketches filled with the typical themes of male machismo that dominate the genre of prison art.

At first glance, most of the paños appear to be one-dimensional depictions of the common symbols. Although fairly obvious, Padilla's translation of these emblems gives the work more substance. He explains, "bars stand for separation, a tower represents society watching over, snakes indicate the presence of evil and peacocks are for pride."

According to Padilla, the inmates who make these paños have developed when it comes to depicting images and dealing with their past and present. "They start out doing sketches of Mickey Mouse shooting the bird or some other cartoon character with a ball and chain," Padilla says. "Five or 10 years later, though, religious symbols start to replace the cartoon characters as the reality of incarceration sets in and the paño becomes one of the few safe outlets for feelings of remorse and regret."

Although it's obvious that the artists' imprisonment does not increase their artistic abilities, it does add an eccentricity to their work. Self-taught artists can bring unique visions to a sometimes sterile art world, if one is willing to sift through with an open mind.--April Brown