There’s a different world inside. In jail, that is. But, then, you might expect that. For whatever reason, a lot of people end up behind bars, and so, with a lot of time on their hands, some of the incarcerated turn to art.
That’s where Scripture comes in.
The main force behind the Promo Hobo outlaw art movement in Taos has recently worked with several incarcerated artists and put together an art show titled “Paños: Art From The Inside,” which is set to open with a reception Friday (Aug. 25), 7-9 p.m., at Órale! Gallery, 114 Kit Carson Road. Admission is free.
Gallery owner Tre DeCcosta said that 100 percent of sales from works in the show will go into the individual prisoner’s commissary fund. His venue is touted as being one of the first “alternative” fine art galleries in the area, boasting the tagline, “art for the revolution.” Its mission is to “give a voice to these amazing artists who have been turned away from the traditional fine art marketplace and galleries.”
In terms of the “Paños” show, that is exactly what is happening, loud and clear. “Taos was built on revolts, rebellion and revolution. We are bringing that attitude to the fine art world,” its mission statement continues.
In addition to the show, Paul Figueroa of the Taos Arts Council has arranged to have a large triptych painting by inmates made into prints (thanks to Gak Stonn), which will also be for sale.
To those unfamiliar with the art form, paños are generally pen or pencil drawings on fabric, usually drawn onto a common handkerchief in prison and found throughout lock-ups in the Southwest.
The first paños reportedly were made using bedsheets and pillowcases dating to around the 1930s. Some were originally used to communicate messages. Since then, they primarily became used for artistic purposes. Common themes for subject matter include Catholic religious symbols, Chicano political movement imagery, beautiful women, and prison commentary. It is said families who receive the art often put them in a box or binder as a keepsake.
In the 1990s, Texas Gov. Ann Richards created enrichment programs for prisons, which was lauded in media reports as helping to “spawn a golden age of paño-making in Texas.” Under the governorship of George W. Bush and Rick Perry, paños became prohibited in Texas prisons.
Taos County Commissioner Candyce O’Donnell said the idea of offering artmaking to Taos County prisoners as a perk for good behavior “for a while, because I believe there is a benefit to inmates for them to explore their creativity, gives them something to do, gives them something to look forward to.” She said allowing inmates to express themselves creatively, within the limits of their incarceration (such as no gang-related images), is also good for their mental health.
She said she first met Scripture at a recent art opening and got to talking about this art-in-jail idea. Soon, she said, the ball got rolling and Scripture was talking to Taos County Adult Detention Center Administrator Nelson Abeyta. Now, to be clear, the 84-bed Taos County jail is not like state prison where there are a completely different standards, a significant depth of commitment by inmates, tougher security measures, and a prison culture that inmates at a county jail only glimpse. But, some might say, jail is still jail.
After speaking with O’Donnell, Abeyta said he and his staff identified some detainees who showed some artistic talent. “The way we did that is by, they did their paños and their arts and crafts here, which is very limited but the work pretty much speaks for itself.” So, he said he identified these individuals and introduced them to Scripture who then set about developing an art project.
Scripture, whose real name is john Dow Heaton, said he is grateful for the gallery’s agreement to provide 100 percent of sales, “many galleries have a 60-40 split,” he said. One of the inmates he spoke with said he had some experience making paños, have done one he was proud of that depicted a battle between the Aztecs and conquistadores, “holding the princess in front of them.” He said that piece is now in his cousin’s barbershop in Albuquerque.
Another inmate artist, Jeremy Gonzales, who is serving a sentence for probation violation, said he got involved in Scripture’s mural project after being identified as having a certain degree of talent. He said he is a graffiti artist and has experience in some computer graphic design. He said he has an associate in applied science at Northern new Mexico College in Española and is hoping to finish as bachelor of liberal arts degree in Taos.
Working on the project was a way to occupy himself until be gets released in a few weeks, he said, something for which he was thankful. “I was just grateful to have an outlet to express myself,” he said. “To have the time and to take my time.” He said painting sessions can last a few hours which is enough time to “get into a groove … I look forward to those days every week and kind of like count my time until those days.”
Even Jail Administrator Abeyta is impressed by the talent displayed by the inmates in this program. “A lot of these inmates like to display their art. They base it on prison, so to speak, on detention, on just being locked up.” Some of the images can be stark and symbolic of life at a crossroads. They might have skeletons, doves, churches, the sacred heart and more. He expressed a measure of pride in helping a program like this happen here, something that has been virtually unheard of.
Abeyta, age 50, said he is a native of Taos and lived here all his life, but has been in charge of the Taos jail for about 16 months. “I’ve worked with the prisons for 22 years. I retired from the New Mexico State Department of Corrections. I worked with the Santa Fe County Jail for seven years, so here I am now.”
He said the art program has actually helped inmates. Some whom he cannot identify were rather “problematic,” and afterward “learned to settle down.” The art program, as stated, is limited. Abeyta said they will not be doing ceramics or woodwork, but now the commissary sells sketchpads. “We sell colored pencils.”
“It’s not all about being locked-down,” he said.
Scripture said the inmates who were involved in this particular project are Miguel Apodaca, Marcos Valencia, Mario Rael and Jeremy Gonzales.
According to the facility’s mission statement, the Taos County Adult Detention Center’s goal is to “keep our facility up to standards, our staff fully trained, and to promote human dignity, fairness, and self-worth. In conjunction with other community agencies and volunteers, we work on providing services for personal growth and development. We will show professionalism as we strive to provide outstanding public service with integrity and reliability.”
For more information on the gallery and the show, call (575) 770-9247.