Art Behind Bars
November 26, 2008 12:16 PM   Subscribe

If people who have a lot of time on their hands and inner demons to exorcise turn to art as an outlet, the results can be startling, even if they have had no prior art instruction and have to make a paint brush out of their own hair and use coffee as paint, or weave things out of hoarded chip or Ramen bags. Drawing elaborately on handkerchiefs became so common in the mid 20th century it's become known as panos. Welcome to the world of prison art.

There's a lot of prison art on the web, and I can't do justice to it in one post, so I'll just try to give you an overview. Phyllis Kornfield, who teaches art in prisons, features some inmate art on her website Cellblock Visions. Prisoner Life profiles three artists here. Corrective Services of Queenland, Australia has a slideshow of prisoner art and crafts. Arts in Criminal Justice has a gallery, and Big House Art has a gallery and art for sale. ESCAPE features some European prisoner art in its two galleries. Human Writes displays some Death Row prisoner art on its site. Prison Fellowship International holds an annual art exhibition and you can see the 2007 winners here. The Fortune Society hosts annual prisoner art shows which travel to different galleries. If you're interested in purchasing some prison art, this non-profit site offers many items for sale, Art Behind Bars has a online gallery of items that can be bought, and you can order Christmas cards or other art prints from the Prisons Foundation.
posted by orange swan (12 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
When I went to San Francisco in the summer of 1992, I took along a guidebook and made the most of the trip by picking out restaurants and attractions that sounded interesting (and also took Amex, the only card I had at the time). One place was an Irish bar that served a full Irish breakfast, which I'd never had. I suppose that I expected it to be a more or less typical Irish-American place that might serve Guinness if I was lucky.

What I found was a hard-core Provisional IRA supporter joint, which not only featured posters of Gerry Adams and Bobby Sands and the like, but also these handkerchiefs that jailed PIRA prisoners had had smuggled out of the H-blocks by their wives and girlfriends--basically miniature versions of the murals that decorate Andersonstown in Belfast. I was strongly fascinated, but also strongly intimidated.
posted by Halloween Jack at 12:27 PM on November 26, 2008

I spent some time in a state prison a few years back (on a film crew, not as an inmate), and we were all impressed with the ingenuity that went into the inmates' artistic expression. One guy made a doll house out of popsicle sticks, collected over years and cut with toenail clippers. I wish I could go back and see all their artwork again.
posted by Rykey at 12:53 PM on November 26, 2008

Previously. I am the proud owner of a print made in a California prison, auctioned as a benefit for these folks.
posted by gingerbeer at 1:32 PM on November 26, 2008

Here's some real coffee art
posted by Autarky at 1:55 PM on November 26, 2008

One of the things that continually fascinates me about art and design is how limitations actually fuel creativity. If you were to give me a specific design problem to solve or very limited materials to work with, I would do better and more creative work more quickly than if you just said, "Here's a room full of the best art and craft supplies. Go to it." And I believe that to be true of most people. The human pysche needs limits to kick at, I guess.
posted by orange swan at 2:50 PM on November 26, 2008 [2 favorites]

Agreed, orange swan. There's nothing as limiting as carte blanche.
posted by rokusan at 3:41 PM on November 26, 2008 [2 favorites]

Here is a photo I took at the Huntsville, TX prison museum of a piece of carved and painted soap. I've got a few other museum photos of less artistic items in that Flickr set.
posted by Tube at 3:43 PM on November 26, 2008

Your first sentence in the post is a run on sentence to the nth degree.
posted by subaruwrx at 4:06 PM on November 26, 2008

No it is not a run-on sentence, though it is a sentence with many clauses, perhaps one that wants to imitate speech rather than be an example of formal writing. But do people really point out other people's grammer/punctuation/spelling mistakes on this site a lot? What a drag.
posted by artfann at 4:24 PM on November 26, 2008 [1 favorite]

In the Napoleonic era, prisoners on convict hulks (PDF w/ images) carved both simple and elaborate items out of bone (leftover from meals?), including ships; needles, pins and spoons. There is a great display of many of these at the USNA Museum ship model gallery in Annapolis.
posted by BrotherCaine at 5:07 PM on November 26, 2008 [1 favorite]

This almost makes me want to dig out the letters and postcards my father sent me the very first time he was in prison, spanning from shortly after I was concieved to about the time I was 4. I've never thought much of them aside from the annoying reminder that at least a little of my own 'artistic abilities' come from him, but maybe other people would be interested in seeing them. To bad I have no idea where all that shit is.
posted by Bageena at 6:37 PM on November 26, 2008

Bageena, I'd sure be interested in seeing your father's prison art.

Your first sentence in the post is a run on sentence to the nth degree.

Even if it was (it's not), my response would be the same: Oh for fuck's sake.
posted by Rykey at 5:14 AM on November 27, 2008

« Older Tie Brian Up, Tie Brian Down.   |   Enough with the "sexy librarian" jokes. Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments