How Paño Arte Becomes Artepaño

If paño arte is the private-facing practice of artists serving time in penitentiaries across the United States, then artepaño encompasses the afterlife of the artifact. Discarded by intended recipients, paños — ink drawings executed on commissary handkerchiefs used to communicate with loved ones — end up in estate sales or second-hand shops. Through bulk donations of second-hand linens, they find their way into thrift stores, antique shops, and flea markets across the American Southwest. 

Collectors of curiosities purchase them for a variety of reasons. Perhaps the intricate designs strike their fancy. Sometimes, proprietors of consignment boutiques or curio outlets hope they have stumbled onto a treasure at the local Goodwill. When curiosity wanes or when the paño inevitably fails to fetch that fantasy consumer of priceless trinkets, the artworks are relegated to eBay. And eBay is where serious art buyers acquire paño arte.

By serious, I’m referring to individuals with connections to galleries, museums, and auction houses. As next-level collectors of rarities, their possession transforms the paño into a valuable commodity. At this level, let’s say, a regional folk-art auctioneer in Santa Fe purchases a paño on eBay and helps a millionaire tourist come into its possession at auction. Most frequently, interest in the artwork is based on a fascination with the prison context. This transaction transforms the paño into a fetish object for the buyer. He (those I’ve encountered are primarily men) then takes the object home to wherever he lives. 

In time, when the aura of the object or interest in the fetish fades, the serious collector seeks to offload his investment on a popular auction house or auction service — more so Artsy than Sotheby’s. If the two parties can’t see eye to eye on the value of the paño, he then cajoles the local museum to take it off his hands, likely accompanied by a tax break that far outweighs the hundred bucks or so he paid back in Santa Fe. (Although museums are not in the business of appraising donations, there is no mechanism for refuting value. Often, it is in the institution’s best interest to passively accept high estimations.) And that’s the end of his interaction with an artifact that now exists in a public institution as an ostensibly valuable artwork.

What do we do with paño arte at this juncture? We celebrate it as artepaño.

Artepaño refers to an artistic tradition and an art movement. Specifically, it denotes an artistic tradition practiced by imprisoned Chicanos from approximately the first third of the 20th century through the present day. The canon of art history can recognize artepaño as a viable movement under the banner of Latinx Art and legitimize it as fine art.

Protected under glass like the “Mona Lisa,” the framed paño acquires a new and distinct value within the museum. The privilege of holding the artwork, and the intentionally tactile experience of its original context, are denied in the interest of preservation in its new institutional context. The veteran museum-goer would never dream of touching the art; it is far too valuable. 

The idea behind promoting artepaño lies in raising awareness of its existence and its cultural value, unsurprisingly galvanized by fiscal factors. People who value integrity and fairness in the art world permit injustices most often when artworks and artists fall below their radar. It is easier to ignore or dismiss works labeled folk or craft than works labeled fine art. It’s easier to disenfranchise artists labeled felons. 

As convicted felons, paño artists lose their right to ownership and even autonomy in the penitentiary. Technically, their artwork never truly belongs to them as the commissary handkerchief is prison property. Placed in the hands of a USPS mail courier, it becomes federal property. If seized as contraband, the paño is deemed state property. While inmate rights vary from state to state, and regulations are variably enforced by federal, state, and private penitentiaries, the paño only achieves independent ownership when and if it reaches the hands of the intended recipient. 

Tellingly, once possession of the paño is lost, property laws in the United States make it nearly impossible to reclaim. The burden of proof and the cost of litigation are placed upon artists and their families. Moreover, even if overwhelming evidence exists to support claims of authorship, claimants must prove that ownership was transferred under duress or occurred illegally. None of the typical scenarios for paños falling out of the hands of the original owner warrant a legal ruling for restitution or remuneration.

However, as the collective appreciation of artepaño grows, the plight of the artist may yet find justice. While it seems farfetched to anticipate federal and state legislators rescinding current laws regarding convicted felons — regardless of how the laws violate basic human rights — demanding due diligence on provenance from institutions holding paños is more feasible. Attributions for artists who clearly sign their work, oftentimes with verifiable inmate numbers, is the first step toward returning agency to Chicano artists.

Editor’s Note: This article is part of the 2023/24 Emily Hall Tremaine Journalism Fellowship for Curators and the second of three posts by the authorthe third of which will be an online exhibition published on Hyperallergic and sent to all newsletter subscribers. 

Álvaro Ibarra will discuss her work and research in an online event moderated by Editor-in-Chief Hrag Vartanian on Tuesday, March 5, at 6pm (EST). RSVP to attend.

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