Prison Art: Rehumanizing the Incarcerated

The genesis of Between the Lines: Prison Art & Advocacy, opening August 9 at the Museum of International Folk Art, was a series of workshops held in 2017 by the museum's education team with degree-seeking students at Albuquerque's Metropolitan Detention Center. This impactful program was followed by similar collaborations in 2018 with Santa Fe’s ¡YouthWorks! and other organizations, fostering a community-driven exploration of mass incarceration’s ripple effects on family and community.

In 2023, museum educator Patricia Sigala and media specialist Chloe Accardi co-curated a small, interactive exhibition on the topic in the Mark Naylor and Dale Gunn Gallery of Conscience.
Here, visitors shared their stories and, Accardi says, "the exhibition team integrated this feedback into the final exhibition we see today." It invites an expansive definition of imprisonment,
incorporating perspectives from criminal detention centers alongside ICE detention centers, Japanese internment camps and other systems of internment.

Between the Lines seeks to rehumanize the incarcerated through the lens of creative authorship. The exhibition features more than 200 works of prison art from the museum’s permanent collection, alongside recently acquired pieces from local teachers, advocates and donors.

These works, says Sigala, "illuminate issues like recidivism, trauma and prisoners' rights. In an environment where you're reduced to a number, art offers a sense of self and connection, becoming a catalyst for change."

Among other art forms, the exhibition delves into the history of paño, or handkerchief drawings, typically in ballpoint pen or colored pencil. These were first created by illiterate Mexican prisoners in the 1940s to communicate with the outside world. The museum previously showcased this practice in a 1996 exhibition, Paño Art from the “Inside” Out.

Award-winning New Mexico Chicano poet Jimmy Santiago Baca, himself once an inmate, describes the work in a spring 2024 El Palacio story, writing, “Paño Arte, prison art specifically, is a search for meaning and celebration of survival under the direst conditions of repression and brutality. This is the real stuff—grim, vulgar, untamed beauty."

John Paul Granillo, another former inmate whose paño works are on view, emphasizes art's role in healing, self-discovery and fostering hope. He is the chief of operations for Santa Fe ¡YouthWorks!, serving as mentor and inspiration for youth participating in education, employment training and job placement programs.

Accardi highlights the time-intensive nature of prison art. “It gives artists something to focus on for hours and days on end,” she says. Among the various works on view from the museum’s
collection is an eagle crafted from torn magazine pages made by Chinese refugees detained in a York County Prison in Pennsylvania. A purse made from gum wrappers by a transgender asylum seeker at New Mexico’s Cibola County Correctional Facility is also displayed. These and other creations showcase the resilience and resourcefulness of individuals within the system.

Between the Lines delves into the history of the infamous 1980 New Mexico State Penitentiary Riot. The series of videotaped interviews on view, Sigala explains, “broadens our understanding of the efforts to end mistreatment and inhumane conditions, including those that led to the 1980 riot."

A robust year of programming exploring exhibition themes includes gallery talks with artists and advocates and in-depth workshops with local youth and organizations.
A film screening and panel discussion highlight the paño art form and changing attitudes around it, while community centered discussions about Native Boarding Schools and Japanese Internment Camps will speak to the exhibition’s broad definition of incarceration. Another program will consider the effects of restorative architecture and design in prison planning on the incarcerated.

Major support for Between the Lines and its related programming is provided by the Cielo Foundation Boulder, Deborah and Martin Fishbein Trust, Harvey and Elaine Daniels Family Fund, Mark Naylor and Dale Gunn, and Courtney and Scott Taylor. Additional support opportunities are available via the Museum of New Mexico Foundation.


This article and images are from the Museum of New Mexico Foundation’s Member News Magazine.