WITHIN THE CONFINEMENT OF A PRISON CELL, creativity is a survival mechanism. Artists wrest images from the deepest centers of their hearts and souls during the stifling sameness of days—or years—spent in incarceration.
It’s a “make do” kind of art, particularly for those without access to traditional materials like paints, canvas, paper, or brushes. Prisoners use whatever materials they can, including paños, which are among the most common forms of artwork made in New Mexico prisons. (“Paño” is Spanish for handkerchief or cloth.) As an art form, paño-making is believed to have originated among Chicano prisoners in the Southwest in the 1940s. Handkerchiefs are a common surface for two-dimensional artwork, but so are bedsheets and pillowcases, which can be cut up and used to trace images from newspapers and magazines, or repurposed as a canvas for free-form art-making.
To sacrifice a small source of comfort—a cheap bedsheet—for the sake of self-expression shows a great need to assert the human spirit. At the Museum of International Folk Art, in Santa Fe, the current exhibition Between the Lines: Prison Art & Advocacy: A Community Conversation showcases the talent and creativity of the incarcerated while changing the rules of how exhibitions are mounted.
Co-curated by the museum’s media specialist, Chloe Accardi, and educator Patricia Sigala, the show runs through November 5. It serves as a preview of the full-scale exhibition, which opens a year from now, on September 8, 2024. Consider this smaller version phase one of a two-tiered exhibition model. Situated in the museum’s Gallery of Conscience, it asks you—the visitor—to share stories of the prison industrial complex and its effects on you, your family, and your community.
“One of the main themes this exhibit is looking at is the severe and lasting ripple effects of mass incarceration,” Sigala says. “This prompt seeks community input about this massive and devastating issue.”
Unlike most museum shows, which tell a story to the guest, the first phase of Between the Lines commits to a two-way conversation. Writing materials are provided, as well as a lockbox for anonymity. With visitors’ permission, their stories will be included in the main exhibition next year.
“Selections of narratives might be used to help illustrate and talk about the effects of mass detention on family and community,” Accardi says. “If visitors say they want to know more about aspects of art-making or materials, or more specifics about the artists, the exhibition team will work to integrate this feedback into the final presentation and organization of the gallery.”
Between the Lines plans to show how art can be a catalyst for change. The exhibition, which is in English and Spanish, illuminates issues around the history and culture of prison life, including recidivism rates, generational trauma, systemic oppression, and prisoners’ rights. In an environment where you’re considered a number, not even a name, it’s clear that art stems from a certain desperation, as well as the need for a sense of self and a connection with the outside world.
“WHEN YOU COME FROM INEQUITY OR ARE IN prison, you don’t always have the easiest ways to express yourself,” says artist and former inmate John Paul Granillo. “The majority of individuals who go to prison are not white-collar. The education level is totally different. Prison art is a different form of looking at the strength of communication. In there, everything is ingenuity.”
Granillo spent 10 years in federal prison for his role in a 2004 Santa Fe bank robbery. A couple of his paños are included in the preview exhibition, and more of his work will be in the main show. He’s always been attracted to art, drawing relentlessly as a child and later becoming a graffiti artist. But even before his stint in prison, he understood the similarities between art and prayer.
“It helps us to heal and gives us time to talk about our dreams,” he says. “This person probably had nothing, and was in a time of desperation when they made their art. To be in that disparity, and to be able to create beauty out of that, gives them the idea of self and hope.”
In addition to inmate-made paños, the exhibition includes sculptures made from cut-up magazines that reflect traditions unique to prisons and detention centers. For instance, Chinese artist Djan Shun Lin and his former fellow refugees at Pennsylvania’s York County Prison passed the time making paper sculptures, which were presented as gifts to their lawyers, who worked pro bono.
“A lot of the work that is made is extremely labor- and time-intensive, which gives artists something to focus on for hours and days on end,” says Accardi, “especially when that time is spent creating something that is either sent out to family or shared with fellow artists and friends inside as a means of personal expression.”
According to the organization Freedom for Immigrants, the United States currently maintains 211 operational immigrant and refugee detention facilities. New Mexico has ICE facilities in Otero, Cibola, and Torrance counties, and the museum gallery features contemporary works made in those centers. One pink purse on display is attributed to a transgender asylum seeker at Cibola County Correctional Center, in Milan. Made entirely of woven gum wrappers, the silver-handled pink-and-white purse was made for a prison-organized fashion show.
The idea for Between the Lines developed from a 2017 series of paño and poetry workshops at Albuquerque’s Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC), held as part of an initiative to address at-risk youth. While some of the artworks include techniques that made their way into prison life from society, many prisoners have no training in the arts and are self-taught. But in New Mexico, some traditions, such as making paños, share iconography with artistic traditions rooted in local communities. Imagery reflects the realities of gang life or “la vida loca” (street life) and time spent in prison. Religious subject matter is also common, including rosaries, hands in prayer, Our Lady of Guadalupe, and Christ on the cross, much of which also appears in lowrider art in New Mexico. It’s a lexicon that expresses experience, faith, and identity.
Several works in the exhibit are anonymously attributed. In recognition of the person behind the works, the museum attributes them to “artist once known.” Its creators, on the outside of academic and commercial art traditions, often make works as a simple expression of love. A signature isn’t always necessary when the art is a gift for someone who knows the artist intimately. Behind every artwork is an individual.
“Sometimes these artworks change hands, from someone who knew the artist’s name to someone who does not, or perhaps comes to forget it,” Sigala says. “This is an example of how a piece can be divorced from its maker’s identity.”
BETWEEN THE LINES IS ALSO REACHING OUTSIDE the museum. Granillo is lead mural artist at Alas de Agua Art Collective, a grassroots art nonprofit in Santa Fe that supports Indigenous, immigrant, undocumented, and queer artists, along with artists of color from marginalized communities. His colleague and co-founder, Chicano artist and activist Israel Francisco Haros Lopez, has worked with detainees in ICE detention centers.
In collaboration with the museum, Alas de Agua is inviting 10 students each from Santa Fe Preparatory School, the Academy for Technology and the Classics, the Masters Program, and Capital High School to engage in a series of poetry and painting workshops around the exhibition this fall. Granillo plans to wheat-paste them together into a mural that retains the original artists’ voices.
“Over the last couple of years, we have had shows that have addressed gentrification, race, class, gender, historical traumas, inequities, healing, and liberation,” Haros Lopez wrote in a 2020 letter to the Santa Fe Reporter. “More often than not, I have found myself in the in-between. Seen as a brown poster child, or not seen at all. What happens in this reality is that you are dehumanized at both extremes; in both realities you are still just silenced, and many times not afforded opportunities because the assumption is that you have them.”
Haros Lopez points to inequities that are also reflected in the greater incarceration rates for people of color. The largest demographic among New Mexico’s detainees is Black, followed by Native American and Hispanic.
Although Between the Lines underscores the efforts to reform the criminal justice and immigration systems in the U.S., it passes no judgment on the reasons for an individual’s incarceration. New Mexico has about a dozen state facilities, including the Penitentiary of New Mexico, which, in 1980, was the site of one of the most notorious prison riots in U.S. history. The exhibition’s video interviews with northern New Mexico locals, teachers, social workers, and former inmates broaden our understanding of the efforts to end mistreatment and inhumane conditions, including those that led to the 1980 riot.
A work on paper from the 1980s by artist Jerry Snyder, then at the penitentiary, shows a prisoner with angel’s wings, chained in irons against a backdrop of human skulls and burning coffins. It’s a powerful reflection of the turmoil of confined life that culls from the archetypal Judeo-Christian iconography of a soul in damnation. Standing before it, one thinks of a broken criminal justice system where, time and again, angels find themselves imprisoned.
It may not be an exaggeration to say that making art on the inside is a means of escape.
The Gallery of Conscience shows folk art through a different lens.
Located in the Bartlett Wing of the Museum of International Folk Art, the Mark Naylor and Dale Gunn Gallery of Conscience is an experimental art space meant to engage audiences in an interactive experience with art. Traditional folk art faces the threat of dying out when its practitioners’ lives are disrupted by poverty, war, forced relocation, genocide, climate change, and many other contemporary issues. The Gallery of Conscience highlights these often innovative art forms and provides an outlet for the marginalized people who create them.
Opened in 2010, the gallery is one of the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, an affiliation of safe spaces—often located in museums and historic sites or memorials—for the preservation of history and living culture. The Gallery of Conscience has showcased exhibitions on themes like women’s rights, folk art in the face of natural disaster, and a dark chapter from World War II–era America (The Art of Gaman: Arts and Crafts from the Japanese American Internment Camps, 1942–1946).
The museum invites the public to engage with exhibition content through a variety of interactive elements, including the sharing of personal narratives and thoughts about artworks. Each display changes over time in response to these contributions.
TAKE A LITTLE TRIP
The Museum of International Folk Art’s stacked lineup of current exhibitions goes near and far.
In addition to Between the Lines, the Museum of International Folk Art features stunning exhibits including La Cartonería Mexicana/The Mexican Art of Paper and Paste (through November 3, 2024), and its latest, Ghhúunayúkata/To Keep Them Warm: The Alaska Native Parka (through April 7, 2024). La Cartonería Mexicana shows imaginative works of paper and paste, including piñatas, dolls, Day of the Dead skeletons, and the fantastical animal sculptures called alebrijes. Ghhúunayúkata looks at the traditional parkas of Alaskan communities and how they remain a form of complex cultural expression, as well as a means of survival.
The Museum of International Folk Art
706 Camino Lejo, Santa Fe; 505-476-1204