Cellblock Visions - prison art in america
prison art in america - Phyllis Kornfield

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folk arts

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Folk Arts

FOLK ARTS are traditional art forms handed down from generation to generation. IN PRISON—from cellie to cellie

FOLK ARTS are specific to a particular culture. IN PRISON—the culture is life behind bars influenced by "ethnic origins".

FOLK ARTS are crafted of materials indigenous to the place from which they spring. IN PRISON—where resources are slim to none, inmates create with soap, cigarette wrappers, toilet paper, pebbles, toothpicks, pop cans, white bread, and much more!


Paper weaving is a craft practiced not only in prison and other institutions but also as hobo art, and at children’s summer camp. Prisonser use cigarette wrappers, potato chip bags etc. - any kind of paper that works. Convicts weave paper to make frames, cup holders, jewelry boxes, scrap books, crosses, miniature churches and houses. One Hispanic inmate calls it “tejido” or netting, and says it reminds him of the fishing nets in the village where he grew up. “Maybe it’s my Indian heritage, being close to nature, or maybe I’m just behind the times.”

Folk Art in Prison
Ernesto Gonzales, Top Ramen Baby Shoes

"Eagle Brand Potato Chips are no longer available in this prison. Maybe they still have them on the streets. It had a beach scene on the front, so you had yer tan from the sand, yer blue and white from the water with the waves, and a big red and white beach umbrella. I saved them for four months to do a jewelry box and a CO comes sweeping through and says you can’t have this and he tossed them."

Folk Art in Prison
Leland Dodd Kools Purse

Soap carving is not permitted in some institutions, tolerated in others, and is widespread in either case. Carvers use state-issued soap or have their favorite brands sent in by friends or family. Carving tools vary - popsicle sticks, plastic forks, paper clips, pencils, square bread ties, big staples, and fingernails grown long, originally to measure out cocaine or heroin.
There is a story that goes around every jail about a guy who carves a gun out of soap, paints it realistically, and escapes. In Take the Money and Run, prisoner Woody Allen’s soap gun fooled one guard but as he neared the gate to freedom, the rains came and the gun turned into soapy lather. Not too threatening.

Folk Art in Prison
Nelson Molina "No One Cares" Ivory soap

Molina depicts an escape which ended badly. One convict hangs from the razor wire, still inside the wall, his severed hand in a pool of blood. His companion made it over but lies dead from his fall on the sidewalk. Passersby proceed, oblivious to the tragedy - Molina’s metaphor for the public’s cold indifference to the plight of prisoners.

Folk Art in Prison
T. R. "Franklin County House of Correction" soap, q-tips, acrylics

"I passed a man’s cell one day who was praying and it stayed on my mind. Here I’m showing a cage, a person isn’t supposed to be like that. When people see it then they could learn not to get in trouble so they won’t have to go through this." A poster hangs on the wall opposite the cell door - "Do not pray for an easy life, pray to be a strong person."

Toilet Paper sculpture. Prison toilet paper is the coarse cheap kind, malleable when wet, hard and durable when dried. One toilet paper artist, paroled to a half-way house, discovered that the relatively luxurious toilet paper available on the streets was too weak for his sculptures. He contacted an aquaintance on the prison staff to get the name of the institution’s supplier.

Folk Art in Prison
Keith Dwy "Self-portrait" toilet paper, crayons
Folk Art in Prison
Dominic Vincenzo "Released by Death" toilet paper, acrylics


Handkerchief art, or "Pano Arte", traditionally a Hispanic prisoners’ folk art is now part of the whole prison culture. Most institutions offer the handkerchiefs for sale in the commissary and tacitly sanction the art. The panos are light weight, easy to mail home and a transportable, allowable means of beautifying a prison cell. They are collected in great numbers by convict patrons. The Smithsonian Museum has a pano collection, recognizing the uniqueness of this art form.

Folk Art in Prison
Anonymous "Let’s Stay Together" colored pencils


Envelope art is made in the same spirit of giving as pano arte. The prisoner sends a splash of color to the family, friend, or lover, and the recipient sees immediately how the prisoner is feeling. The profession of envelope decoration is a thriving one. Inmates can decorate an envelope for themselves or they might hire a professional for a custom design.

Folk Art in Prison

Folk Art in Prison

Folk Art in Prison
Anonymous Envelopes mixed media

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Cell Block Visions: Prison Art in America
Email: phylkorn@bcn.net