One of the highlights of the Mural Arts Program’s new project is that it’s giving a voice to people who don’t normally have one. A mural created by two formerly incarcerated artists will be dedicated at 4 p.m. today in front of the State Department of Corrections Community Corrections Center on Eighth Street near Callowhill, followed by the opening of the Voices exhibition at the Painted Bride Art Center.
Mural Arts had already been working on a series that deals with the criminal justice system, but funding from the Robert Wood Johnson and Ford Foundations helped them develop something new.
The Voices exhibit features artwork and projects by visual artists Hank Wilis Thomas and Ursula Rucker, CUNY criminal justice Professor Baz Dreisinger, and formerly incarcerated artists Jesse Krimes and Russell Craig.
Krimes painted the mural being unveiled today and has had other shows in Philadelphia, including a few solo shows at Drexel’s Leonard Pearlstein Gallery and a permanent installation at the Eastern State Penitentiary, which is currently up. Craig has also been a part of other art projects. Just last July he had artwork featured in the Truth to Power exhibition, a pop-up art exhibition centered on mobilizing the youth vote.
The purpose of the Voices project is to bring attention to justice reform in the United States by highlighting the stories of those who have been jailed and are still incarcerated. The Graterford Mural Arts Program, where some of the Voices participants’ artwork came from, includes a total of 24 men who are self-taught artists within Graterford State Correctional Institute in Montgomery County.
Billy Penn had the opportunity to speak to Krimes and Craig about the new exhibit and their time spent being incarcerated.
Both of you spent some time in prison. Could you talk a little about your experiences?
Jesse Krimes: Shortly after I graduated from Millersville University, I ended up getting indicted and going to federal prison for five years. In a nutshell, I was indicted on drug trafficking charges and as a non-violent offender they ended up putting me into solitary confinement for the first year to try and get me to cooperate and put pressure on me and then the last few years they sent me to maximum security federal prison as a non-violent offender. So the entire time I was in I ended up establishing art programs working with some of the guys that I was in prison with and also making some of my own independent art work during that time as well.
Russell Craig: When you’re first getting there from being free, it’s like an overwhelming kind of feeling and you have to adjust quickly, ya know. And once you see the number of black people that are locked up, — you hear about mass incarceration but once you’re there and you see it, it’s very overwhelming. Like, that’s one thing that I will never forget, when I was in my oranges and first coming in, you just see all the faces.
What helped you stay motivated or think positively in prison? What kept you on the right path?
JK: I think there were a lot of things. I was facing a 10-year mandatory minimum to life sentence for a non-violent drug offense, and facing that amount of time and just going through the system and knowing what they do, not just to individuals like myself but everyone coming into the system, it made me resentful and angry because it’s so very unjust in terms of the extended amount of time and the conditions that they put you in for no reason. And it just made me angry and resentful and artwork, I knew, was the one thing that they could not take from me. Also, the one thing that I could put my anger and resentment into that was positive that allowed me to maintain my sanity.
RG: It was art because ever since I was a kid I had an interest in art. And I used to be in foster homes and stuff like that, so I would use art as a thing to escape but also as a focus and when I went to prison it was the same thing. My story could have been different because there is foolishness that you can get involved in, but that’s another reason why art was important because it just kept me focus in my own little world.
How did you find your interest in art after your release?
JK: When I was making the artwork by myself while I was in solitary, I realized the kind of tower that it provided me in terms of self control and this space to invest all of these ideas, so once I had that experience, I came across a lot of other guys that were extremely talented in art and I just wanted to work with other people to provide the same thing that it did for me.
How did you connect with the Mural Arts Program?
JK: When I was in FCI Fairton in New Jersey, Robyn Buseman [Restorative Justice Program Director at Mural Arts Philadelphia] came in to look at the facility. They have this program at Graterford, which is what the Voices project was created through, to see if they could potentially institute a project like that there. And in the process of doing that, I got to meet her and tour her around the facility to show her what was possible and to also show her my own work. That initial meeting, she told me when I came home to contact her and that they would have a job waiting for me.
RG: I used to volunteer there because I was not officially a part of it, so when I could I would just go, just to be around the art. And there were guys there that were more experienced, like my mentor James Hough and other talented artists. I would go down there and talk to them and they would share techniques and they even gave me my first set of pastels.
(Hough, an inmate at Graterford, has been a part of the mural arts program there for around 12 years, according to Buseman. He has helped paint many murals, including Family Interrupted at Germantown and York, and a Shepard Fairey mural at Eighth and Callowhill. He also has two pieces in the show opening Friday at Painted Bride.)
As far as the exhibition goes, how did you decide on what art to feature?
JK: In the process of coming up with the imagery for the mural, each participant all created their own individual work on panels so I pulled from those individual works for the overall mural. So the works that are going to be in the exhibition are original works that all of the participants painted.
Did you work directly with the inmates inside the prison?
JK: As the main lead artist, I went into Graterford and held workshops for a couple of months. I also went into the halfway houses and held workshops with the guys there and so I did actually go into some of the prisons. I gave them a lot of leeway in terms of what they wanted to make, the only thing that I asked that they express their primary concern. Either their primary situation or what they feel needs to be addressed in the justice system, while they are incarcerated or when they come home.
When asked to work on Voices, how did you decide what image you wanted to display?
JK: That’s something I left up to the participants I worked with. I worked with a couple guys and let them dictate what their images would be, and this whole process is based off the premise that this is their voice and their chance to say what their primary concerns were about being in prison and reentering society. I didn’t want to come in with some preconceived notion of what that was going to look like, so I basically just designed the frame work for their artwork and voices to develop and through that process I selected their individual artwork and kind of configured them into this large mural.
RG: I was one of the main art teachers and put together a project called Redemption. I had each student paint their own canvas, painting on a letter from the word redemption and put it on the canvas, explaining what they wanted to redeem themselves from and what did redemption mean to each individual. Each canvas has its own story.