A New Fellowship Is Paying Formerly Incarcerated Artists to Help Tackle Prison Reform
Jesse Krimes created his first prison artwork while locked in solitary confinement. He had been arrested shortly after graduating art school while carrying 140 grams of powder cocaine. Even though he was a nonviolent offender, Krimes spent the first year of what would become five years in maximum security prison in solitary confinement.
“Being in that environment, artwork was the primary source for me trying to maintain my sanity,” Krimes says.
While art created by those in prison is often viewed as simplistic or clichéd, Krimes was creating elaborate and nuanced pieces using what limited materials—soap, playing cards, sheets—were available to him. Following his release in 2013 he continued to create work, as many formerly incarcerated artists do.
Those with criminal records face difficulty finding employment or, when they do get jobs, are often stigmatized. So in some sense, Krimes was lucky: His artwork found attention and accolades—even exhibited at “Truth to Power,” a show focusing on criminal justice during the Democratic National Convention in 2016. But that didn’t translate into much-needed financial support.
Enter Right of Return, a new fellowship geared towards formerly incarcerated artists. Sponsored by Open Philanthropy Foundation and the Soze Agency, the fellowship comes with $20,000—half of which is given up front to cover the everyday life expenses that can so often get in the way of artmaking.
This year, the five winners—representing $100,000 total—will be partnered with nonprofits working for criminal justice reform in order to develop work that speaks to the injustice of the carceral state, while having the cost of their materials paid for.
“It’s jump-started my entire life,” says Krimes, one of the two winners announced thus far. He has used the money to pay off back bills and contribute towards his home and studio rent.
The fellowship has its origins in “Truth to Power,” where the work of Russell Craig, another formerly incarcerated artist who served seven years for possession with intent to distribute, was on view alongside Krimes’s. The two artists and former inmates met after their release, and Krimes encouraged Craig to expand upon the paintings he’d created while in prison.
“I did portraits for people and they would pay me. But I had a couple ideas that were deeper,” Craig says. “[Krimes] advised me that I should continue that type of work.”
Rather than throw away the reams of banal documents given to him after his parole, Craig painted his face over them, juxtaposing his own humanity with the cruel, faceless bureaucracy of the prison state’s mundane record-keeping in an 8-foot-by-8-foot work. Another winner of the inaugural fellowship, the artist calls the money a “blessing,” providing necessary financial support while allowing him to pursue his artistic vision.
“It was an escape,” Craig says of the work he created in prison. “When you’re in certain kinds of situations, through art you can block out other stuff and just focus.” But now, the fellowship has allowed him to explore his practice with financial breathing room.
“I’m usually putting together art with cheap stuff, like the papers I was going to go throw away,” Craig says. With the support of the fellowship, he can use just about any materials he’s interested in.
Work made by prisoners is often ignored or sidelined. Righting this perception gap is a task that Krimes is passionate about, especially given that his practice doesn’t conform to the general stereotypes of prison art, but rather is marked by astounding complexity, both in subject and in execution.
For Apokaluptein:16389067 (the title refers to a Greek word meaning “uncover, reveal”), Krimes worked for three years, between 2010 and 2013, to transfer images from the New York Times, using hair gel and plastic spoons, onto prison sheets.
“It’s literally inversing the simplistic representations that were in the media,” he says.
Krimes then hand-drew narrative elements into the 15-foot-tall and 40-foot-long work. To avoid detection in prison (such work would be considered contraband), he rolled the sheets up and marked them with a label for approved art canvases, knowing the guards wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between the materials.
Now, Krimes is serving not only as a fellow, but an advisor for the Right of Return program, as is Craig. Indeed the fellowship began to take shape only after someone from Open Philanthropy approached Krimes after a panel at “Truth to Power.” Soze soon joined forces with the organization, and the wheels were set in motion.
The goal of the initiative, Krimes says, is to go beyond “elevating” marginalized artists, and actually “help people get back on their feet doing something that they love and provide actual economic support.”
By partnering with nonprofits, the fellows can create work that has a chance of changing a criminal justice system that overwhelmingly imprisons minorities and non-violent drug offenders.
“Artists are critical in terms of strategy and providing a vision,” says Daveen Trentman, production director at Soze. “And it has to be formerly incarcerated artists to give us a vision for our path forward to a more just society. We’re honored to be following the lead of those who have been directly impacted.”
Applications are open through April 21st. As of last week, they’d already received more than 50 applicants, with more to come. The remaining three slots will be filled by a juried selection process, with both the members and the nonprofits participating to be announced in the coming weeks.
Though this year is limited to five fellows, Krimes and Trentman say the hope is for that number to grow in the future as more funding becomes available.
“The art field is one of the fields where you don’t have to allow that stigma of being formerly incarcerated to keep you silent or be a barrier,” Krimes says. “It’s a space where you can own it and develop yourself.”