An artist has developed the Chinese tradition of carving eggshells by depicting his experiences in American prisons.
Sculptures are three dimensional. Drawings, generally speaking, are flat. Bas-reliefs may be both: thickened drawings with edges and shadows. An exhibit label years ago at the American Museum of Natural History, for pre-historic drawings surface-carved onto antlers by the slight removal of surrounding background material, described relief sculptures as probably the first sculptures. A suspect proposition never forgotten. As if the genesis of three-dimensional art stemmed from drawings that stood up like the ink blots reconstituted into dancing characters in early Max Fleischer cartoons. While this theoretical pre-history ignores shaped and molded icons, including the Venus of Willendorf and Cycladic figures, there certainly are a lot of relief carvings that have lasted since antiquity, despite their number having been recently reduced by imbecilic destruction at the hands of religious psychopaths.
One feature of relief art from ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, pre-Columbian Mesoamerica and others of more recent vintage, like wall sculpture in 1930s American post offices, (no one says “the” Rockefeller Center) Rockefeller Center, and bronze war memorials throughout Europe, is the narrative arc of so many. Like very sturdy comic books or graphic novels, carved and cast reliefs were frequently utilized for telling stories and are often sequential artworks that unfold in time.
Small surprise, then, that the foundation for the narrative art of Gil Batle was enriched by the comic book drawings of Jack Kirby, Gil Kane, Frank Frazetta and Robert Crumb. Dreaming of comic stardom like millions of American boys, Batle, now aged 54, was born and raised in San Francisco by Filipino parents exactly when Zap Comix were coming hot off the local presses, but he took a decidedly different artistic path.
Drawing for the other kids in a California Youth Authority lockup; hand-pricking initiation tattoos on teen gang members and decorating their iconographic jackets; air-brushing Chevy low-riders and painting murals for restaurants around the Bay area; illustrating a weekly newsletter with caricatures of fellow inmates in the San Mateo County Jail; and drawing his own traveller’s checks and doctoring money orders, which led inevitably to successive incarcerations in five different California prisons over a 20-year period for fraud and forgery. Batle left that world behind in 2008 to move to Marinduque, a small island in the Philippines.
Batle’s self-taught drawing ability evolved behind bars into sophisticated, clandestine, tattooing skills that protected him from the institutionalized (spelling) gang violence in prisons like San Quentin, Chuckawalla and Jamestown (“Gladiator School,” as it’s known to the unfortunate cognoscenti). Where Bloods, Crips and Aryan Brotherhood gang-bangers in racially segregated cell-blocks rule with intimidation, threat and force, Batle’s facility for drawing was prized by the murderers, drug dealers, and armed robbers whose stories he now recounts in minutely-carved detail on fragile ostrich egg shells. With only the men’s names, as he says, “changed to protect the guilty.”
As Batle recounts, “The prison ‘artist’ was a commodity. He was like a magician. Even the toughest convicts were in awe at the artist’s skills. I was that commodity. The ability to draw, my age and the fact that I was good at faking it [toughness]… Call it performance art… is how I was able to survive behind those walls. Nothing I’m proud of, but funny when I think of it now. I did tattoos inside. Not daily, and I have to say that my skin art doesn’t compare to my drawing patterns that I could sell in the joint. I drew daily. Mostly tattoo patterns and portraits of family members on the outside. I would have the inmate pose for a sketch and include them in a family photo they had in possession, as if the inmate were there with them in the final drawing. I was pretty good at it too.”
Ivory is perfect for detailed carving – strong and monolithic with almost no grain. Seashells and eggshells grow from calcium carbonate – hard, but brittle. Mollusk (spelling) shells have been surface-carved into cameos since Ancient Greece; ivory carvings exist from pre-history. Eggshell carving has been around for centuries in China and is popular enough today for “World Egg Artists” to have their own Facebook page. Ivory has always been precious and may ultimately disappear world-wide, as elephants are slaughtered yearly in the thousands. Ostrich meat is sold for food in many countries so the eggs are easy to obtain.
Carving complex, realistic, highly-detailed, scenes on egg shells with high-speed dental burs requires precision, focus, patience and a form of fearlessness, as disaster is always a crack away. Gil Batle’s life-on-the-edge is being reconstituted in the high-wire bravado of his art as the stories from his hard past are portrayed on nature’s perfect creations of life and birth.
“I first select a theme for the egg, which is a task in itself because there is an endless number of themes to choose from. The first part of carving is the most challenging. I’ve learned, through trial and error, that none of the eggs, so far, is perfectly symmetrical. So, finding the center line, or equator line rather, is the key to ensuring that the panels or frames fit parallel to the top and bottom of the egg. Once these horizontal lines are penciled in, the vertical lines are drawn. Then, by using this ‘ready made grid’ to guide me, it’s just a matter of deciding where the panels or frames will be placed. Then the fun starts, with characters, icons and scenes for the egg’s theme… the idea that it’s an actual therapy for me… I have to go back [mentally] to prison to capture that feel of being inside that place. Its a relief of gratitude when I look up from the egg and I’m reminded that I’m not in there anymore.”
The panels on Batle’s sculptures wind their way around, up and under the shape of the shell like chapters of a book or scenes in theatre. Two apparent precedents for this kind of helical unfolding of imagery are Trajan’s Column (AD113) in Rome and the carved elephant tusks of the Kongo or Congolese cultures from southwest Africa, both of which have figures marching in file from bottom, around, to top. Batle’s primary scenes are only sometimes in chronological order, while his smaller, secondary, panels and repetitive friezes are either packed with imagery associated with the egg’s story or contain objects or fragments that are obliquely referential. Animals stand in for inmates on some because, “many men had animal nick-names and to be honest, many acted like animals.” Medieval ivory carvings, plaques and portable altars are also commonly organized (spelling?) into panels that correspond to episodes of a story, such as events from the life of Christ. Despite their antithetical content, Batle’s carvings most immediately resemble these miniature devotional objects. His works are intensely figural and eggs are shrine-like in themselves, revered as sacred in many cultures.
In Batle’s work, Sanctuary (2014), a man is welcomed by friends and family as he leaves prison but then falls back into his life of crime and inevitably returns to be incarcerated yet again. Batle shows this in three major vignettes and a frieze of birds circling above with their wings clipped and hearts penetrated by arrows. Almost all of Batle’s sculpture/pictures contain writing, the bands of minute words on Sanctuary read, “Here in my cage with my pierced heart and broken wing I find comfort. I am safe but never free.”
The main component of the architecture of Ghost Communication (2015), is a wide band of interconnected vignettes that circles the egg’s equator. Figures, hands, and keys freed from their backgrounds fill the ovoid’s antipodal latitudes. The title and imagery refer to the coded language of words and symbols used by inmates when a “hit” against one of their own is planned on the yard. Men speak from cell to cell through toilets and their voices are shown “flushing” through the pipes. Hand signals – a prison version of sign language – encircle the egg. Men whisper from one to the next as they queue for meals. A “shank” (the prison-made weapons fashioned out of anything from a sharpened tooth brush to a scrap of metal that are ubiquitous in all of Batle’s works) is transferred from hand to hand, and the targeted victim is given a very, very close shave while sitting in a barber’s chair.
Gang Chart II (2015) is exactly that: two portraits from each of the four “races” in San Quentin and other California prisons – black, white, Latino and “other,” which included Samoans, Filipinos and Asians. That the prison officials would segregate these men with their own kind, inevitably reinforcing territorial gang warfare, is one of many shocking truths portrayed on Batle’s carvings. Because his tattooing skills were so prized, Batle had a certain autonomy inside that kept him safe from the gangs. His locker, he said, “was always full” of cigarettes, drawing supplies, candy and whatever else was traded as currency on the yard.
Gil Batle is harnessing his complex and difficult life history, wide-ranging imagination, drawing facility and preternatural carving skills to make remarkable and compelling art of passion and power. He’s commented that “everyone’s got their own personal prison(s) that keep them from pure freedom. Mine was worse than most.” Working every day at his carving bench in the South Pacific, he is freer now than he has ever been.
This article was originally published in Raw Vision Magazine #89.