Caged in 

There's a little known form of folk art called paños that comes from a pretty unlikely place. Paños, which are little more than paintings on handkerchiefs, are made by Mexican-American prisoners in jails and penitentiaries in the Southwest. The tiny canvases contain a variety of cultural imagery — from religious icons to low-rider trucks — and are often used by prisoners to communicate with family and loved ones. Whether they are love letters, admissions of regret or personal narratives, each paño weaves a tale.

Local artist Sarah Schrift says she's never heard of paños, but her latest exhibit at the Paint Creek Center for Art bears a sort of kinship to the underground medium. Dubbed Jailbirds, Schrift's installation is a collection of antique handkerchiefs all bearing drawings of "migratory birds" that, nonetheless, can be seen year-round in Michigan.

The 28-year-old says her inspiration for the installation came when she moved back to Detroit after college. She attended Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore and Columbia University in New York City.

"Coming back — from two cities that had public transportation — to Detroit, I discovered there's such a need for it here," Schrift says.

The pieces are quaint dye-on-cotton portraits. That she has chosen to only draw birds that are technically migratory, is important. "They are imprisoned and they have resigned themselves to living this way because they see no alternative and no way out," Schrift says.

Jailbirds is a commentary, however subtle, on the absence of alternative transportation options in Detroit. That locals — especially those without cars — cannot always easily (or affordably) get where they need to go is a problem. And Schrift believes that some people search for refuge in bars and then find that there's no easy way to get home safely. "So many people have gotten DUIs. Something has got to change," Shrift says.

At first, the handkerchiefs "will just kind of look like something that hangs in a grandma's house." But upon closer inspection, the keen observer will see they represent much more.


Opening reception 6-9 p.m., Friday, Jan. 20, at the Paint Creek Center for the Arts, 407 Pine St., Rochester; 248-651-4110.

Eve Doster is the listings editor for Metro Times. Send comments to

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