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| Art |

Prison soap art: Inspiration for the great unwashed, or just creepy?

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Prisoners send me all kinds of weird crap. I've gotten medical records sealed with toothpaste. Lists of DEA informants on toilet paper. Hair samples from a supermax inmate who wanted them tested to prove that the staff was trying to poison him. And lots of bad drawings, some even intentionally hilarious.

But I'd never received anything quite as disturbing as what arrived in yesterday's mail. Meet the Fort Lyon Jesus -- an objet constructed from two bars of soap, with some kind of monstrous goo in the middle fusing the two. This arrived from a prisoner -- fan or foe, it's hard to say -- at the Fort Lyon Correctional Facility, a place with a long, troubled and asbestos-rich history, as detailed in our 2007 feature "Poisoned Pen."

What does one make of such a gift? Should it be taken at face value, as an inspirational message about the redemption of sinners? Is all the shellac and its mottled appearance supposed to provide an ironic commentary on the transformational effects of the correctional experience? Or does that sinister goo (close-up pictured below) have more than mere foundational purpose? Does it present a less representational aspect, a kind of meditation on the corruption of the flesh? Is it the proverbial shit sandwich?

Lord knows, the material itself is problematic enough. Soap has extensive connotations within prison lore and cinema, from the tacky rape jokes dealing with dropping soap in the shower (cf. Leslie Nielsen's chastity belt in the shower scene in Naked Gun 331/3) to the gun carved from soap, to disastrous effect, in a rainy escape attempt in Woody Allen's Take the Money and Run, to the battles of hygiene and wills in Cool Hand Luke. Turning two bars of soap into a message of hope adds -- well, some sudsy layers of complexity.

I would like to think the Fort Lyon Jesus is well-intentioned, however problematic its interpretation. If cleanliness is next to godliness, maybe this is a start.

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