In ‘Hatched in Prison,’ Gil Batle Carves Jailhouse Life Onto Ostrich Eggs
by Ken Johnson
November 19, 2015 – Gil Batle, 53, served a total of 20 years in five California prisons for fraud and forgery. He survived by trading his skills in drawing and tattooing for protection by, and from, fellow inmates. Now living in the Philippines, he has been recounting his experiences in an unlikely medium. Using a high-speed dental drill, he carves miniature narratives of prison life into the surfaces of ostrich eggs whose contents have been extracted. The 19 examples in this show, all made in the past two years, are amazing for their meticulous craftsmanship and detailed storytelling.
Displayed under glass domes, the eggs stand vertically, each about six inches tall. Typically, they have horizontal bands of rectangular, circular or oval panels that frame images rendered in a style of comic-book realism. Above and below these vignettes are more bands: images of chains or razor wire, or repeated motifs like a knife-wielding hand. Mr. Batle usually cuts through the eggshell in places to emphasize patterns, revealing the empty interiors. Much of the imagery is so small that you need a magnifying glass — provided by the gallery — to appreciate it fully.
Each egg is devoted to a particular theme, explained by Mr. Batle in the exhibition checklist. “Reception: Fresh Fish” illustrates the arrival and processing of new prisoners. “Fraud” is about Mr. Batle’s own trajectory, from forging traveler’s checks, money orders and fake IDs — “In a twisted way,” he notes, “I saw it as Art” — to drawing portraits, doing tattoos and creating greeting cards for other inmates. Now in the third phase of his artistic career, Mr. Batle has finally found a legal, safe and profitable outlet for his remarkable skills. It’s an inspiring story.