CULTURE & ARTS
01/05/2016 10:17 am ET Updated Jan 11, 2016

After 25 Years In Prison, Artist Etches Memories Onto Eggshells

Inside the incredible life and work of outsider artist Gil Batle.
A photo of Gil Batle's carved ostrich eggs from 2014.

An ostrich egg is not as delicate as its dear cousin, the chicken egg. In fact, legend has it that if you stand atop one, it will not crack. 

After spending nearly 25 years behind bars, San Francisco-born Gil Batle moved to a small island in the Philippines. He was given an ostrich egg. This little egg would change Batle's life forever. "I like to think that the proverbial lightbulb went off," Frank Maresca, Batle's art dealer, explained to The Huffington Post. "I'm not sure exactly what went through his head but I do know he took that single ostrich egg and -- how it happened, I don’t really know."

Using an eggshell as his base, Batle carved a three-dimensional narrative in painstaking detail, recounting the painful and visceral memories from years behind bars. Onto the smooth exterior of the shell, in marks so small they require a magnifying glass to see properly, Batle rendered visions of gang violence, prison riots, court hearings and horrifying dreams. 

The round relief sculptures, in a style somewhere between Lorenzo Ghiberti's "Gates of Paradise" or Frank Miller's "Sin City," are equally as precise in their attention to narrative detail as they are to visual detail. One egg recounts jargon that prisoners often turned to in their letters to the outside, referencing contraband or other illegal actions while dodging the watchful eye of the prison guards. Another portrays the entry process of new inmates, or "fresh fish," from their toilet paper rolls to their fearful contorted expressions. 

Most of Batle's epic visions are framed by prison fences, carved into and out of the shells. "How the whole thing is possible, how anyone can carve a lattice of a prison chain link fence -- I honestly don’t know how the hell it happens," Maresca said. "It just seems like a miracle to me. It’s absolutely impossible that it could survive."

One of Gil Batle's carved ostrich eggs titled "Chrysalis."

Maresca was introduced to Batle's work around a year ago by private dealer Norman Brosterman. When Maresca finally had one of the objects in his grip, he was mesmerized.

"I’m turning the egg, and this narrative of a life I don’t know at all but we’ve all heard about, seen represented on film, written about -- all of the sudden, here it was. This was real. Here I am, holding in my hand a round egg, something that is circular, sort of like film, or a story," he said. "It’s something that someone touched, carved, it’s real. This guy lived all of these scenes."

Batle was locked up in five different California prisons, including San Quentin, Chuckwalla and Jamestown, sentenced for various crimes associated with fraud and forgery. "The story of crime is unfortunately and usually the same," Maresca said. "He was a certain age, ran with a proverbial bad crowd. Drugs became a part of his life. Drugs are an expensive habit. If you’re from the background that’s not the greatest background in the world, you turn to crime."

In one of the texts accompanying his work, Batle succinctly describes the experience. "After losing my job, family and then divorced, I had to 'create' a way of making money (literally). I was making my own traveler's cheques, money orders, fake IDs and even credit cards ... In a twisted way, I saw it as art. I had so many identities that I almost forgot who I was. I was going through a crazy identity crisis." 

During his incarceration, Batle witnessed five stabbings, two riots, multiple rapes, and saw someone being thrown out the window. "I have a few stories that are so complex that it would be impossible to express on an egg," Batle said. "No movie. book, painting or even eggs can express what it was really like in there."

This one is titled "It'€™s Your Fault II."

Batle's ability to forge cheques speaks to his technical skill as an artist. At the time, his skills were primarily expressed through illegal activity and the occasional tattoo. These same skills protected Batle while incarcerated. 

He fashioned tattoo materials out of whatever he could scavenge, using motors from CD players, electric toothbrushes for the gun, and ink from melted chess pieces or soot mixed with lotion in a paper bag. His ability to tattoo (and create the occasional illustrated greeting card) helped him avoid the grisly violence that plagued most prisoners' stays. Before serving time, Batle had a gift. In prison, this gift became a sort of lifeblood.

"The prison ‘artist’ was a commodity," Batle explained. "He was like a magician. Even the toughest convicts were in awe at the artists’ skills ... Call it performance art, how I was able to survive behind those walls."

"It’s prison, so in prison, what do you have a lot of? Time," Maresca put it. "What do you do with that time? You can build your body and you can build your mind. Gil wasn’t making eggs in prison. He was preparing his mind, he was preparing stories, he was laying the groundwork. His brain served as the repository. He just stored them up."

"Sanctuary."

Each egg, standing vertically, measures around six inches tall. The etchings, carved using a high-speed dental drill, take approximately a month to create. Batle begins by mapping out a grid of horizontal and vertical lines, ensuring the entire narrative framework will fit. He then delves into the archives of his memory, patching together details to create a vivid, compact vision. 

Chains, knives, wire, bars and birds reappear like elements of a recurring dream, mimicking the endless repetition of daily life experienced in a cell. Certain figures adopt a mythical quality -- memorably vicious prison guards, for example, take on animal forms. When depicting himself, Batle opted for masks and chameleons instead of his true appearance, alluding to his criminal career of shifting identities. 

One egg, titled "Cicada Nymphs," collapses the image of the folkloric insect with that of the inmate, stemming from the idea that cicada nymphs stay burrowed underground for 13 to 17 years before emerging to mate. "It is unknown what takes place underground for all those years," Batle explained in an artist statement. "I relate this idea to how civilians on the outside view inmates serving very long sentences on the inside. Folks on the outside don't know what we do on the inside."

And then there is the import of the egg itself, the all-natural emblem of protection, of life. "What could be more the symbol of life than an egg?" Maresca asked. "What can be more delicate? Maybe that was what was going through his mind. He told his story on that first egg, that egg essentially gave birth to another egg. No one wants to communicate in silence."

Gil Batle, 2015, Abscond: Letters from Jonathan, Carved Ostrich Egg Shell

Batle's artistic practice is a form of catharsis, a means of communicating memories too dark to say out loud. "I actually have to go back (mentally) to prison to capture that feel of being inside that place," Batle said. "Its a relief of gratitude when I look up from the egg and I'm reminded that I'm not in there anymore."

Batle has never had any formal artistic training. Because of the extensive time he spent in prison, and the altered state of mind that would result from such an experience, many would qualify Batle as an outsider artist. However, Maresca describes Batle as a self-taught artist, one not quite so far outside the mainstream, who can safely function in society without, say, the aid of a caregiver.  

After a certain point, terminology becomes irrelevant, as distinctions between outsider and self-taught artists fade in comparison to the work itself. What's clear is that Batle possesses immense natural talent, incredible patience, and a vast arsenal of stories waiting to be told.

"I said, 'Gil what’s next?'" Maresca said. "'What are you going to do next?' He said, 'I have so many stories to tell.' Twenty-five years in the joint. Every day. Think about what he witnessed."

Now a free man, Batle is able to release his darkest recollections -- slowly, painstakingly, mark by mark. Like eggs, people too are less fragile than they seem. 

Gil Batle's work will be on view at the Ricco Maresca booth at the Outsider Art Fair, from Jan. 21-24, 2016, at the Metropolitan Pavilion in New York City. 

  • Ricco Maresca
  • Ricco Maresca
  • Ricco Maresca
  • Ricco Maresca
Installation shot
Installation Shot
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