Emblazoned Messages: Embellished Envelopes by Texas Prison Inmates

September 7 - October 31, 1999

This exhibit consisted of seventy-nine rarely seen drawings on envelopes by anonymous self-taught Texas prison inmates. The exhibit included work from prisoners housed in Gatesville, Tennessee Colony, Lovelady, Huntsville, Brazoria, and various other facilities of incarceration in Texas. The envelopes in this exhibition, while exhibiting the return address of a specific prisoner, were not decorated by that person. There is a long tradition within prisons of certain inmates being sought out for their drawing skills by prisoners wishing to send embellished mail to friends and family.

While decorated envelopes have long been an aspect of prisoner correspondence, actually looking at them as works of art was virtually unknown in America until recently. The last two decades have seen a growing interest in American self-taught artists and generated growing and substantial body of scholarly writing. However, the study of self-taught artists in Texas remains somewhat of a frontier to this day. The drawings in this exhibition invite the viewer to set aside traditional preconceptions about art and artists and to view the works within the context of their makers and the environment of confinement. All of these works are in some way an outgrowth of personal experience and illustrate for us a knowing and deeply emotive image of the prison condition. Many of these drawings were created in response to deeply disturbing events in the life of the maker. Virtually all self-taught artists make art that springs from some similarly catastrophic circumstances in their lives. The works, while exhibiting a "raw" character and unconventional appearance, also often possess a child-like use of color and line that allowed the anonymous makers to visualize love, hopes, dreams, and memories of a freedom distant to them.