Paño Art: A Canvas Born Out of Necessity

Our Lady of Guadalupe depicted as Paño Art.

Years ago I received this beautiful image of Our Lady of Guadalupe painted on a handkerchief. Known as Paño art, this type of canvas was born out of necessity. For many years Hispanic men in the state’s penal system would use handkerchiefs as their canvas to paint various cultural and religious images. Images of Christ’s crucifixion and Santo Niño de Atocha are two other common images found on this type of prison art. In addition to sacred images, the artist will often depict scenes of prison life. Many of the images feature the faces of men behind bars, prison guards and guard towers.

It’s in the Mail

Paño Art provides an outlet for the inmate while serving time. The art also provides a way to communicate with loved ones. Family members receive this type of art in the U.S. mail, since it conveniently fits into a small envelope. These small canvasses allow inmates to share creative thoughts with those he misses. Romantic images often appear on Paño art. Hearts and flowers in a setting far removed from prison provide solace to loved ones. Family images with children, parents and pets depict the communal life that the prisoner remembers. Historical images of folk heroes like Cesar Chavez regularly appear on the handkerchief canvas.

Classic Paño Art

Some Paño art is created in different hues of pastels. The classic form of this style of art is done with a black ballpoint pen. The black ink image is featured on a 16 X 16 inch handkerchief. Lettering at the bottom identifies the people or image in the art. The world took notice of this type of cultural expression when the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C. had an exhibit of Paño Art in 1993. Some of the paños are now in the “American Encounters” permanent collection. Today, Paño art is more of a memory because technology has replaced this form of communication.

Roots of Traditional Hispanic Art

More than 300 years ago, Franciscan friars established their roots of devotion to the santos. These Catholic religious images, painted on deer or elk hide represent one of the art forms that continue to enrich the region. When the Spanish conquered New Spain and incorporated what is now New Mexico in 1598, they brought European art and crafts. Religious art helped convert the Indians to Catholicism.

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