Even though you might be living behind bars, the desire to create still lives inside you. You’ll grab whatever materials you can find and make something to pass the time, to express your fears and to make a statement about your life. In the 1990s, Chicano prisoners in San Antonio, Texas, took square pieces of cotton, called Paños, and created elaborate scenes with ballpoint pen. Some curators now recognize them as folk artist.
Maria Hinojosa went to the home of David Joralemon, a New York art collector and spoke to curator Martha Henry. Part of David’s collection is currently on tour in Venice.
Photos courtesy of Martha Henry.
And why has paño making become illegal in Texas? Curator Martha Henry explains:
” Although private prisons have become profitable businesses, the governor is ultimately in control of the prison system and sets the tone for the wardens who run their facilities like private fiefdoms and enforce their own sets of rules. However, it is the governor who encourages or forbids art programs and the flow of art supplies in jail and creates a supportive or hostile environment for paño making.
Texas Governor Ann Richards, whose term ran from 1991 to 1995, allowed rehabilitation programs to flourish which upset the historical culture of punishment in Texas prisons. She was defeated for re-election by George W. Bush whose war on crime re-instituted the trend toward dehumanization in prison governance. Prisoners should suffer, so art making was not allowed. However, making paños with gang references has never been allowed and would result in confiscation and lock-down.
The paños I researched were made between 1989 and 1999 during the governorships of Ann Richards and George W. Bush. In the past six years it appears that there has been a shift in prison culture:
Not since the early 1990s, when then-Gov. Ann Richards, a Democrat, shook up the historical punishment culture of Texas prisons by opening new drug-treatment prisons focusing on rehabilitation, has such a dramatic trend emerged, some experts say. Only this time, conservative Republicans are driving the reforms that began in 2007, as fiscal conservatism gained the upper hand over tough-on-crime policies.”
Martha Henry is a New York independent curator of exhibitions traveling to museums and university galleries throughout the U.S. and internationally. Ms. Henry curated and organized the tour of Art from the Inside: Paño Drawings by Chicano Prisoners, a show of 120 ball point pen drawings on handkerchiefs by Texas inmates, which travelled to Wiegand Gallery, Notre Dame de Namur University, Belmont, CA: The Snite Museum of Art, University of Notre Dame, IN; Inuit – Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art, Chicago, IL; The New England Center for Contemporary Art, Brooklyn, CT; and El Museo del Barrio, New York, NY between 2004 and 2012.
David Joralemon is an art curator living in the Upper East Side of Manhattan. His personal collection of Latin America and includes ancient art, Latin American colonial furniture and decorative arts, 19th century landscape paintings and drawing by American and French travelers to Latin America, 20th century ethnographic pieces from Panama, Surinam, Brazil and Peru, Chicano paños, and lots of finds from flea markets.