Prison shanks were the inspiration behind Lavar Munroe’s 2014 work on paper Yellow Glove with Shank from the series The Footprints Go This Way and Then They Return. The artist, who divides his time between between Chapel Hill and German Town, Maryland, began the series about a year ago.
“Yes, with this series of work, it was inspired by prison shanks, that I began thinking about and making a year ago,” Lavar told us. “I was interested in making these pink objects that were in many ways phallic, and spoke about the homoerotic space within the prison. For me, the prison became the epitome of the hero’s journey, and in that sense, I began thinking and researching the writings of Joseph Campbell, who was an anthropologist. One stage of Campbell’s ‘hero’s journey’ was the belly of the beast. And for me, I thought of prison as that place, the belly of the beast. I was also interested in the idea of the celebratory nature of the after-prison experience.”
We asked Lavar about the party hat symbol in his work.
“I have one piece in the series that is a human brain crowned with a party hat,” he told us. “I’m again thinking history, the history of the party hat. Historically, the party hat has its origins as a dunce cap. People who were responsible for misbehaving or doing petty crimes were made to wear this hat and paraded throughout public thoroughfares. Today we wear it as a party hat and disregard the past connotations of such an object.”
Lavar went on to explain the prison shank imagery in his work.
“A prison shank is made out of pretty much anything that’s available within the confines of the prison,” he told us. “There was this one documentary that I watched a few years ago that showed a prison shank being made using a coffee lid. The prisoner had access to a cigarette lighter, which he used to melt and form a sharp knifelike tip using the plastic lid. The heated plastic was then dipped in the toilet. This made the plastic nearly rock hard. The inmate then wrapped, cushioned and concealed the solid plastic with found fabric from his surroundings. A lot of the shanks that I made were made using that method.”
The artist has never served time in prison, he told us.
“I was never in prison, but I know of a lot of people who have been in prison,” Lavar said. “I’ve always had an interest about that space. And I did a lot of research on it. So I’m sourcing from documentaries, I’m sourcing from readings, both about the prison but also about notions of survival, notions of heroism, the hero, and what the hero means. I also sourced from my upbringing, where in many cases the hero was the person who committed a murder, went to prison, but was released from prison. He earned credibility. The hero was the drug-dealer, who destroyed families throughout the year but made sure that all the kids in his community had toys or bicycles for Christmas – the Robin Hood-esque figure of the community. Such occurrences fueled my thinking in regards to the hero’s journey.”
How long does it take Laver to make each drawing?
“Quick,” Lavar told us. “It is important to note that most of these drawings came from actual objects that I made. The objects for me served nearly as a still life. I would draw from them and I would make each drawing nearly educational. A lot of the writings tell you how these objects are made. Another element of the writing is a narrative that speaks of the menacing ability of such an object (shanks). There are instances of horrid text, juxtaposed with humor. It’s a very heavy subject that I am tackling in this work and I find it nearly a must to lighten up with play and humor where possible. I used play and humor not only in the words, but also in the material. I’m using my daughter’s Band-aids, I’m using her stickers, I’m using staples, I’m using thread and needles. And again, they are all very playful and you wouldn’t think about it as nothing bigger than that. As the artist, I am thinking about these material very critically and strategically. The Band-aids are Barbie Band-aids. I am thinking about the wound. I am thinking about a grown man with a Barbie Band-aid on his wound, which for me points to the homoerotism within a “macho space” such as the prison. I’m sewing and thinking about the stab wound being stitched together. I am stapling – It’s a really bad injury, so we have to staple it together. I am cutting the paper, am mentally making references to the cut of the shank blade.”
Find out more about Lavar’s work Yellow Glove with Shank from the series The Footprints Go This Way and Then They Return, part of the current exhibition Area 919: Artists in the Triangle, in this video. Portrait of Lavar Munroe by J Caldwell.