Where we might see an ostrich egg, others can see a blank canvas ... the perfect medium for a message shaped by memories. Here is a story from Jane Pauley:
At first glance, they look like something wrought by Faberge: egg-shaped sculptures, elegantly carved into lacy designs, and oh-so-delicate. But look again, and the art's true meaning comes into focus: An unsparing account of life behind bars.
"When I do a piece, I actually have to go back to prison mentally," said artist Gil Batle, "to feel the loneliness, the anger, the fear. I have to go back there in order to recreate that scene again, the brick wall, the bars. And when I look up from the egg, you know, I feel gratitude that I'm not there anymore."
Batle spent most of his adult life in and out of California jails and prisons. for fraud and forgery. Yet after nearly a decade of freedom, Batle finds himself drawn back to the scenes that once defined his world.
"On a lot of the eggs, I have a chain gang," he told Pauley. "And I used to think those aren't just 20 guys. Those are 20 guys with 20 different stories."
"Do you give each individual a different face?" she asked.
"It's impossible to do the same face. You can't make the same face. Different faces, but no expressions."
"An egg and an eggshell is expressionless until the artist arrives?" Pauley said.
"Wow, right. Life, yeah. I put life on that thing."
That "thing" is an ostrich egg.
Batle has had a life-long obsession with the shape of eggs, and their promise of a fresh beginning. But ostrich eggs are an exacting medium: He carves using a high-speed dental drill, the only tool that can render such astonishing detail.
"The shell of an egg is about a sixteenth of an inch," he said. "And if you go past that sixteenth of an inch, you practically destroy the egg. And I think that kind of fragility is where I stand emotionally, I think."
"Well, aren't we all?" Pauley said.
"Aren't we all?! That's right. We all are. We all have that sixteenth of an inch, I think."
In works like "It's Your Fault," Batle charts the cycle of cruelty -- the abused boy becomes an abuser himself.
In "Abscond: Letters From Jonathan" (left), Batle recalls his absence from his son's life. "His high school graduation was coming up. And he says, 'You're gonna be there, right, Dad?' I said, 'Yeah, I wouldn't miss that for the world.' I got arrested the next day. A couple weeks later, the guard goes, 'Batle, you got mail.' And I couldn't open up that letter for a week," he said, crying.
Batle says his skill designing tattoos and other works for fellow convicts was his protection behind bars. And it's no small irony that his talent for creating another type of artwork -- forging checks to support a drug addiction -- is what kept landing him back in prison.
To break the cycle, he moved 7,000 miles away, to a remote island in the Philippines -- his parents' native country -- where he supported himself making knick-nacks for the tourist trade.
But his younger brother, Agelio, himself an accomplished San Francisco artist, prodded him to do more.
"It just melted my heart," said Agelio, "'cause I knew what he could do, what he was capable of doing.
"I said, 'Well, why don't you tell your story?' And he looked at me and said, like, I was crazy: 'Well, who would be interested in that?' And I told him, 'I'd be interested in that. I think there'd be a lot of people interested in that.'"
"Wow," said Pauley, "that your brother would be proud to have you be an artist who tells prison stories?"
"He's always been there," Gil replied. "He has never closed the door on me."
And now the door to a future as a successful artist has opened for Gil Batle -- the imposing ex-con who creates such delicate masterpieces which sell for $14,000 each. At age 53, there's so much lost time to make up.
"You could have had a great career as an artist," said Pauley, "but then you wouldn't have a story to tell that you've got."
"Isn't that wild?" said Batle. "And I think it was with my son, I said, 'This could've happened years ago. And it's almost kind of late now.' And my son says, 'No. If you didn't go to prison, this couldn't have happened.
"I used to see this bumper sticker, and it says, 'Art saves lives.' And I' see it, I go, 'Yeah, that's kinda corny.' But it does. It saved my life."
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