This weekend I've been reading God of the Rodeo: The Quest for Redemption in Louisiana's Angola Prison. It is a kind of ethnography. Journalist Daniel Bergner was granted unusual access to inmates by Warden Cain and delivers a candid anthropology of this prison community rich with thick description:
"..his short, wiry body was covered with tattoos. The spiderweb was among the smallest. An animal half lion and half monster, with a mane of fire, occupied most of his back. A viking dominated his chest, a helmeted woman his shoulder. From hip to hip across the bottom of his back, in fancy calligraphy, a tattoo read: LOUISIANA CRACKER.
For each of these he had paid a convict artist to burn a plastic canister, usually of Speed Stick, with a paper bag held over the plastic to catch the rising soot. Scraped from the paper, the soot was mixed with toothpaste and water to make the ink. A steel guitar string was threaded through an empty pen shaft. The artist rigged a tiny motor, taken from a cassette player, to jab the steel string thousands and thousands of times into Cook's skin.."
How to make something from nothing. The tenacity of the Angola tattoo artist reminded me of this piece, installed in a show I saw at the American Visionary Art Museum a few years ago.
The artist, Ray Materson, learned to embroider while he was serving time for a felony drug conviction. He rigged an embroidery hoop from the top of an old plastic tub and stitched with hypodermic needles scored from the prison drug trade. Materson unraveled socks to make thread and swapped with other prisoners for needed colors.
Using this steam punk assembly of tools, Materson spent his 15 years in jail embroidering tiny illustrations of his life story. The photograph doesn't capture the mastery of the work. Each piece is tiny - 2" x 2", 1200 stitches per square inch. Flawless; precise.