The Personal Lifetime of Paño Arte


I first encountered paño arte, intricate ink or pencil drawings on handkerchiefs created by way of incarcerated Chicanos, as a boy in south Texas. My older cousin had gained a letter from Huntsville State Reformatory. Each inch of the envelope was once embellished with an elaborate internet of pictures performed in ballpoint pen. Vegetal motifs sprouted roses and daisies; tangled ivy printed a menagerie of half-hidden doves, peacocks, and feathered serpents. Throughout the envelope was once a better treasure: a cotton handkerchief emblazoned with a shocking drawing of the Virgin of Guadalupe. 

My cousin shared the letter as a result of she knew I preferred artwork, however she was once conflicted over the destiny of the artsy contraband. The artist was once an ex-boyfriend, busted the former yr for seeking to sneak a couple of pounds in the course of the Border Patrol checkpoint close to Kingsville, Texas. It was once a torrid affair with a vato loco with few potentialities, and she or he had determined to offload him previous to the arrest and speedy conviction. (Vato, ruca, and pinto are Chicano slang for “man,” “gal,” and “convict,” respectively.) The fellow had dabbled in tattoo artwork. It appeared jail gave him the time to hone his abilities. 

I don’t know what my cousin did with the paintings. She didn’t need her mother to seek out it, however she felt it mistaken to easily chuck it within the rubbish. I believe her ex fantasized about his ruca clutching the handkerchief to her breast, wiping away tears of pleasure and longing. Whilst her passions for him had subsided, that nonetheless stays the meant impact of paño arte. The handkerchief purposes as a 2d pores and skin; this is a proxy for the absent epidermis of the pinto, in a similar fashion embellished. Like pores and skin, the paño is pliable, cushy to touch, and a car for communique.

Through the years, I encountered the uncommon instance of paño arte across the Rio Grande Valley and San Antonio by chance. Hid in drawers or buried in linen closets, the paño was once by no means on show. In spite of everything, it was once no longer some degree of pleasure to show the truth that a kid, relative, or spouse frolicked in prison. The change is supposed to be personal, the message is customized, and the vulnerabilities disclosed are the sort a pinto essentially represses within the context of the jail. 

In 2018, I reencountered paño arte at Utah State College within the collections of the Nora Eccles Harrison Museum of Artwork. The handkerchiefs weren’t unfastened. Relatively, they had been disheveled, framed, and below glass. The recontextualization and re-presentation shifted the cultural paintings they carried out. Paintings that was once by no means meant for public intake was once all at once on show, accurately divorced from the tactile issue of the unique revel in, I believed. Nonetheless, like my cousin, I used to be torn in my evaluate of whether or not or no longer paño arte belonged in a museum.

My answer got here by the use of the consideration between paño arte and artepaño. The previous is a non-public change to which the museum-goer must by no means be privy. The latter is public, a birthday celebration of a novel inventive custom born of tragedy. Artepaño legitimizes the hard-won efforts of artists running below super duress, and it elevates their output past labels designed to cut price it.

Unrecorded artist, “Untitled” (date unknown), ink and coloured pencil on cotton, 15 x 15 inches

Editor’s Be aware: This is a part of the 2023/24 Emily Corridor Tremaine Journalism Fellowship for Curators and the primary of 3 posts by way of the creatorthe 3rd of which can be a web based exhibition printed on Hyperallergic and despatched to all publication subscribers. Sign in right here for Álvaro Ibarra’s digital match moderated by way of Editor-in-Leader Hrag Vartanian on Monday, February 26, at 6pm (EST).



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