Ten thousand spectators enter the USA’s largest maximum-security prison every Sunday in October to see the rodeo at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola. Around the arena, amid bands, concession stands and pony rides, prisoners sell “hobby crafts”: toys, furniture, crochet, sculptures and paintings they make in time off from a 40-hour week of hard labor. Prison guards and a few trusted inmates man stalls among the crowd, but most artists are separated from their work by a tall wire fence through which they heckle and charm, negotiating deals.
The prisoners tailor their art to their rural, religious audience, explained anthropologist Melissa Schrift in a 2006 article in the Journal of American Folklore. Most are from urban backgrounds, but paint rodeos, cowboys and the countryside. “Doesn’t even have to be a good rendition,” one told Schrift. “Sell for US$20. Sell 5,000 of them.” Another had a customer request he add a Bible to his self portrait. He did, and made the sale.“
"Hobby crafts" are part of the rehabilitationprocess at Angola, where three-quartersof inmates are serving life and the rest havean average sentence of 93 years. A smallpercentage of the $400,000 the Art Fair makes in a weekend will go to the artists, but most goes to the Inmate Welfare Fund, which covers shortfalls in the state corrections budget. Salvation and redemption are common themes in Angola artwork, says Schrift, mainly because they sell.
From the pages of COLORS #87 - Looking at Art.