Prison Art: Pañuelos


Written by Susan Toomey Frost

Photographs by Al Rendon

Following the murder of 22-year-old Andrew Escobedo in 2003, the San Antonio Express-News reported that "during his jail stays, Andrew Escobedo painted elaborate images on handkerchiefs, including one with hearts and roses that he sent his mother on Mother’s Day." These "pañuelos"—expressions of faith and love using handkerchiefs as canvases—most likely originated in the 1940s among Mexicans incarcerated in Texas prisons. This indigenous art form has flourished among inmates ever since, and it continues to exemplify the artistic domain of Catholic Hispanic males.

Religious themes are common in pañuelos. For example, one artist used a Fruit of the Loom handkerchief to depict Juan Diego kneeling before the Virgin, with the Basilica of Guadalupe in the background. The prisoner inscribed the drawing a week before Christmas with the words: "To my loving Mom and Dad with love, your son, Juan D. Gonzales, 12-17-76."

Over the years, handkerchief art has spread to prisoners of other ethnic backgrounds throughout the United States. Prisoners often trade pañuelos with other inmates or sell them outside the prison to earn spending money. In fact, pañuelos are so popular that some art galleries now display and sell them, and museums are mounting exhibitions of these expressive little squares of cotton fabric. At least a dozen pañuelos can be found on the auction website eBay on any given day. Other websites also feature pañuelos, the "prison art." Prices typically range from about $10 to $60, but serious collectors of folk art routinely pay much higher prices for extraordinarily fine pañuelos.

Although a prisoner’s body may be strictly confined, art can allow his imagination to freely explore a limitless range of memories, words, and images. Pañuelos provide a powerful medium for the inmate to express himself, relieve the stress and boredom of incarceration, and assert his personal beliefs and identity. In the case of Tejanos and other Mexican-Americans, pañuelos can represent pride in being Mexican. In this highly original montage of Pre-Columbian and Spanish Colonial images, inmate S. Flores Duarte boldly depicts the Conquest of Mexico as the Birth of the Mestizo (see below). The script reads, "On this spot on August 13, 1521 the Aztec forces bravely led by Cuauhtemoc, fell to the power of Hernan Cortez and the Spanish army, it was neither a defeat nor a victory, but rather the painful birth of the Mestizo People Who are Mexicanos."

Ed Jordan, a “super collector” of folk art, jokingly asked when he first saw a decorated handkerchief, “But what if I have to blow my nose? How will I wash it?” (Making a pañuelo is considered an “art” and not a “craft” because the handkerchiefs serve an aesthetic function rather than a practical or utilitarian one.) His joke wasn’t the best way for an Anglo to begin the semester in a place where handkerchief art was already thriving outside of the classroom.

A commercial artist in Austin, Texas, Jordan had been hired by Blinn College in Brenham to teach at its auxiliary campus….the federal prison in Bastrop, Texas. Jordan says that the experience was the “best five years of my life.” He quickly enlisted a talented inmate named Paul Young as his assistant. (Personal interviews and correspondence with the two men are a primary source of information for this article. Several current or retired officials with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice also have been helpful.) Paul Young, now deceased, finished serving his prison time and began working from the “Young at Art Studio” in San Antonio, where he taught art as a way of building confidence and self-esteem in released prisoners who are adapting to a world outside the prison walls. After Jordan’s job at the federal prison ended, he began avidly collecting pañuelos. Many pieces illustrating this article came from his extensive collection.  

Popular Iconography

Handkerchief art shares stylistic characteristics with lowrider art, tattoo art, graffiti and mural art, and other contemporary and predominately Hispanic or Chicano art forms – all of which borrow from, and enrich, one another. A handkerchief lends itself as an especially useful medium for prisoners. The fabric is relatively cheap and has “bite” that takes ink and color much like more expensive linen canvas. Unlike paintings on canvas or drawings made on pieces of rigid illustration board, both of which are difficult to wrap and expensive to mail, paños fold into a regular envelope and are easily mailed with only one stamp. Prison authorities seldom censor artwork. Nurses, priests or others who serve the prison community can place a pañuelo into a pocket or purse and benignly smuggle it out. The person who receives it can sew the handkerchief onto a pillow, pin it to a wall or corkboard, or frame it for more formal display. The artist also may establish a commercial relationship with an agent who sells the artwork on his behalf, or with a collector who buys the work from the artist by sending payment to his account at the prison or to his family back home.

By far, the most popular religious image drawn on the handkerchiefs is the Virgin of Guadalupe framed in an aura of radiating light. In most cases artists copy depictions of the Virgin from patterns, but some are highly personalized and symbolic. Prisoners occasionally put themselves into the drawing with the Virgin. In an unsigned example, an artist drew a self-portrait of a chained prisoner within a keyhole beneath the praying hands of the Virgin. Both chains and keyholes symbolize imprisonment.

Roses often surround the Virgin and fill the white space with color. The artist will lose himself in time as he sits on the bed in his cell, carefully detailing and shading the rose petals. Former inmate Paul Young had a theory about why an artist will spend so much time on each rose, “Art is a right-side brain activity. When you unconsciously shift into this right brain work, you become completely oblivious to things around you. All noise, not jst white noise. The second thing is that you become oblivious to time. You can spend three hours on this detail work and if someone asks you how much time you had been working on it, you cannot tell them.”

In one example, an artist depicted a watchful eye – perhaps that of the artist himself? – along with the Virgin and other elements in a drawing of two women, one in a massive sombrero. In paño art, women are invariably young and voluptuous, with voluminous hair and even bigger breasts. The same artist, Ruben Torres Magallon, extended those attributes to the Virgin in a daring depiction of her body artfully draped with a cloak of stars. The impish figure beneath her implies that the Devil made Magallon do it!

A powerful image in pañuelo art is the head of Christ in agony. Perhaps empathizing with the suffering of Jesus, an anonymous artist in one example emphasized the tears and blood on the face of Christ, whose forehead is crowned with exaggerated thorns. Understandably, prison artists seldom choose to depict Christ dying on the cross. A more comforting and hopeful image is that of Christ as a shepherd. In the traditional style of a devotional retablo, a prisoner drew a standing figure of Jesus holding an image of St. Jude, the patron saint of desperate and lost causes. An invocation fills the entire right side of the pañuelo drawn by the unidentified artist. He evokes his own situation in recounting in the text that Judas is honored and forgiven, despite his betrayal of Jesus.

Saint Martin de Porres, from Lima and the New World’s first black saint, has become an increasingly important religious figure in North America. He is revered because of his devotion to the sick and for his miraculous cures. On one unsigned pañuelo, the saint offers a cup to the lips of a man in need. While Saint Martin has risen slowly in importance, Emiliano Zapata, the revolutionary leader who fought for land reform and social justice, has skyrocketed to a status of popular cultural icon. Vendors plaster his mustached face or erect figure crossed with ammunition belts, on T-shirts and a host of everyday objects. A pañuelo artist named A. Hinojosa captured the high degree to which Tejanos, at least, revere Zapata by granting him equal standing with the Virgin on a heavenly Mexican Flag.

Techniques

The iconography on pañuelos is usually in a fixed pattern that wavers only slightly from the accepted norm, but if the drawings spring from the imagination of a freehand artist, they can be unique in subject matter and composition. Likewise, the techniques used to create pañuelos can be standard and repetitive in unskilled hands, but inventive and original in skilled ones. Artists in prison are creative within their limited resources, and they seek ways to break the barriers that confine their art. When a prison artist discovers or introduces a new technique, it can spread quickly to others.

Serious persons with natural artistic talent, however, can be loners who keep their gifts private and choose to stay isolated behind bars. Others interact and monopolize on their artistic skills. Most designs used behind bars get copied from templates that are shared among inmates who cannot draw freehand. Artists who can create original, lifelike drawings can earn respect and esteem within a prison. Some artists give away their work as a token of friendship. Some trade their unsigned work with other inmates who sign their own names on the handkerchiefs and send them to loved ones as their own work. A few artists have become well known outside of prison and collectors eagerly purchase their work. A gifted artist like Magallon is so highly regarded that he cannot meet the demand of collectors seeking his work. Sometimes artists earn enough money to help support families back home. For these men, handkerchief art is a special source of pride.

Among fellow inmates, a respected artist may negotiate the trade of a completed handkerchief, as an example, for two or more “Blues” or “Bugles,” depending on the subject and quality of the work, or the amount of time it took to create it. A Blue is an 8-ounce sack of Maxwell House instant coffee, and Bugle is the brand name of a tobacco used for rolling cigarettes. Both are popular barter materials in a federal prison. Texas prisons became smoke-free in 1995, but in federal prisons, which still allow smoking, a tiny package of tobacco is a medium of exchange. A booklet of stamps or a package of soup mix or other commodity becomes a monetary unit in prison because real currency, such as a $10 bill, loses value when it can’t be used to buy things in the commissary.

Art Materials

Because obtaining art supplies can be difficult or impossible, prison artists scavenge just about anything that can be improvised to make art. Toothpaste substitutes for glue when an artist uses wet toilet paper to shape papier-mâché sculptures. Creative artists can carve bars of soap; stack toothpicks and matchsticks to construct small structures, and even transform the pit of a fruit into a tiny animal or figure. They can cut magazines, potato chip bags, or cigarette packs into strips, and fold and weave them to make picture frames, purses or other objects. They can cover paper bags and envelopes in elaborate decoration and cut placemats or doilies from bed sheets and unravel, weave and tie the threads to create the lacy borders of intricate drawn-work. They can take elastic threads from athletic socks and weave the material into bracelets and necklaces.

Because such ingenious improvisation abounds within the prison system, supervisors are always suspicious of anything that could be gang-related or turned into a weapon. But prison officials generally look upon pañuelos kindly, and in fact consider them "mainstream."

When the art form began, prison artists drew pictures and wrote texts with pencils or pens. Even today, prison artists make most pañuelos with black ballpoint pens. At first prisoners drew on real handkerchiefs that were brought in from the outside. Officials changed the rules, however, to prevent the sneaking of contraband into the jails and prisons. Prisons officials restricted family members, friends and those serving the prison community from giving prisoners art supplies or blank handkerchiefs. When so many inmates began tearing up their bed sheets to make handkerchief squares, the officials soon learned that it was cheaper to sell squares of fabric in the commissary than to constantly replace the disappearing bedding.

It costs money to be in prison. In facilities run the by Texas Department of Criminal Justice, all able bodied prisoners must work. Instead of wages, they earn special privileges and reduction of their sentences. Federal prisons, on the other hand, pay wages. When Ed Jordan and Paul Young were teaching art in Bastrop, the pay scale for federal prisoners was 11¢ an hour. Friends and family can send money to supplement a prisoner’s account, but not all inmates have people able or willing to do so. A prisoner must purchase any personal items, extra food or other items at the prison commissary. Prisoners use a debit card with a magnetic strip that keeps track of their balance, but there are limits on how much they can spend.

A prisoner can take up handkerchief art with a modest investment in supplies. A 15” square of white fabric, precut and hemmed, costs about a dollar. A set of 12 colored pencils costs another dollar and in the hand of a skilled artist, they can produce astonishing results in color mixing and layering. Prisoners must order specialized art books or fancier materials from outside publishers or suppliers through the commissary. For example, a person wanting a set of Prismacolor art pencils or colored markers, must place an order and have sufficient money ready in his account to pay for it. The prison keeps a waiting list for ordering items through the commissary. It can take a long time for the prisoner’s name to reach the top of the list before he can place an order. Prisoners can find ways to expedite the process. Getting along with others and bartering for favors are important social skills for people confined in a system with its own operating code.

It can be an enormous challenge for a prison artist to acquire everything needed to make the handkerchiefs. The fabric needs to be fixed to a hard surface for the artist to draw on, and lap boards are either permitted by officials, or considered contraband, depending on the rules. Texas state prisons permit only the use of illustration board purchased at the commissary, but in a federal prison, pieces of plywood are purloined through someone working in the prison woodshop. The artist can get starch used to stiffen the material from someone working in the laundry. Through a series of intricate trading deals, a lap board or supply of starch may pass through several hands before reaching the artist. Prisons guards conduct periodic shakedowns of cells, and they may confiscate an artist’s lap board and supplies by citing an infraction of the rules. Such punitive measures don’t happen often, but when they do, they often embolden the prisoner’s will to express himself through his art, and he finds a way to begin anew.

Prison artists wear pencils down to stubs and carefully keep the stubs in a box. Empty cigar boxes are prized containers. The boxes come from the commissary, provided that the commissary carries tobacco. Former inmate Paul Young reports that artists who are smokers prefer to be in federal prison, where tobacco is still allowed. "If you’re planning to commit a crime,” he advises, "make sure you do it in a way that gets you into federal prison and not a state one. Artists have more freedom there, and everything is better."

Before an artist gets released from prison, he solemnly passes to a fellow inmate his art materials and small box filled with pencils. When the artist goes free, he abandons handkerchief art, but if he is imprisoned again, he takes up his art once more. Probably because the making of a pañuelo consumes too much time, it’s not economically feasible outside of prison. The late publisher Malcolm Forbes once observed, "There’s never enough time, unless you’re serving it."

Neither is it feasible for someone from the outside to observe the art while it is being made inside a prison. Young states that "high fences with nasty razor wire and guards with high-powered guns keep the observer out….You have to commit a crime, get convicted, avoid probation and get sentenced to prison to personally watch this work being done."

Viewing and Collecting Pañuelos

The Downtown Branch of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York probably gave museum goers one of the first – if not the first – exposure to pañuelos in 1981 with an exhibition called “The Prison Show: Realities and Representations.” Glenna M. Stearman Park, who organized a folk art studio for residents at the Bexar County Jail in San Antonio, participated in mounting that exhibition. Her article entitled “Jail House Rag” appears in Folk Art in Texas, published by the Texas Folklore Society in 1985.

In 1997, the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico, mounted an exhibition called “Paño: Art from the ‘Inside’ Out,” organized by then MOIFA curator Mariah Sacoman. The exhibit included pieces from the museum’s permanent collection as well as those lent by individuals. Following that exhibition was another in Santa Fe. The Hourglass Prison Art Museum displayed envelope art and pañuelos made by artists from New Mexico and Texas prisons. From 1999 to 2002 “Art from the Inside: Drawings by Chicano Prisoners” included some 110 pañuelos that toured the United States. The New England Center for Contemporary Art in Connecticut rents the traveling pañuelo exhibit complete with labels and brochures.

In 2002 an exhibition called “Inside Out: Jail-House Visions” successfully toured the United States and attracted public attention and favorable reviews. The exhibit, which was curated by prison reformer Carol Strick, displayed more than 100 artworks, including handkerchiefs, created by prisoners throughout the United States.

These and other exhibitions give the public a greater insight into prison life and a better understanding of those who are incarcerated. In contrast to the widening interest in prison art, the New York Corrections System in 2002 banned the sale of artwork by inmates. Prison authorities reacted after the press reported that artwork by a serial killer was on display and offered for sale. The proceeds of the exhibition and sale would have benefited crime victims.

The Centro Cultural Aztlan in San Antonio displays and sells pañuelos, as do numerous folk art galleries in other U.S. cities where there is a heightened interest in Chicano art. A good source on the World Wide Web is eBay, the leading online auction site. Several Internet sites not only offer work for sale but also give the name and address of the prisoner who created it. Many artists welcome correspondence from collectors who want to discuss the symbolism on their handkerchiefs and the techniques used in making them. Artists in the California prison system are particularly communicative because arts programs have operated there for some 25 years. (As a word of caution, asking an artist why he is, or was, in prison is considered impolite or rude. An inmate may volunteer the information, but knowing personal details is unnecessary in order to appreciate the art he creates.)

What prison artists draw on pañuelos is by no means limited to religious themes illustrated in this article. Secular subject matter includes drawings of hearts entwined with ribbons, pin-up girls, depictions of life in the barrio, fantasy images, and a wide range of popular cartoon characters. A pañuelo owned by the author pictures a lonely little bear dressed in a bright orange uniform and blue slippers issued by the Bexar County Jail in San Antonio, where the art of pañuelo-making is thought to have begun. A tear rolls down the bear’s desolate face as he looks out from behind bars, and in the text below, he sends all of his love to his wife: CON TODO CARIÑO PARA MI ESPOSA.