Art

Formerly Incarcerated Artists Visualize Healing

The OG Experience amplified the voices most directly affected by mass incarceration, putting the spotlight on artists thoughtfully grappling with the prison industrial complex.

Russell Craig, “Eval” (2017), blood stains, canvas, acrylic, dimensions vary (photo by Kisha Bari and courtesy of Jesse Krimes)

The state of the justice system in the United States is fraught with racial and gender bias, sexual assault, and inhumane abuses — ones with human consequences that often go ignored or written out of mainstream narratives.  But the business of imprisonment has transformed into a multi-billion industry, in which the detainment of bodies churns a hefty profit, apparently more valuable than the human lives it destroys, and the consequences are destructive — emotionally and financially — for those incarcerated and their families.

Of the 2.3 million people being held in prisons, Black Americans are incarcerated at more than five times the rate of white individuals. A criminal record can reduce the likelihood of a callback or job offer by nearly 50%, despite such overwhelming statistics of disparately punitive sentencing for minorities and false convictions.

Russell Craig, “Self-Portrait” (2016), pastel over legal documents, 96’” x 96” (all photos by the author unless otherwise noted)

The OG Experience, a short-lived pop-up exhibition in Chelsea sponsored by HBO’s OG, a film made using presently incarcerated people as consultants and actors, was organized to reflect the gravity of the prison industrial complex, and the discernable effects of its abuse of power.

The exhibition, curated by formerly incarcerated artists, was refreshingly raw and poetic. The conceptual content allowed for a redefinition of self-taught, political artwork by formerly incarcerated individuals. The OG Experience amplified the voices most directly affected by mass incarceration, spotlighting works that thoughtfully grapple with the aftermath of livelihoods broken down by systemic abuses. Artworks operated as vessels for healing and explored queerness, race, and class while avoiding tokenization or condescension, as they channeled firsthand experience.

Russell Craig, “Eval” (2017), blood stains, canvas, acrylic, dimensions vary

Among the most visually striking artworks were seven hanging, haunting canvases of Rorschach-like paintings made with ox blood and acrylic paint. Their introspective, violent gestures are dark and psychological, and embedded within these abstract forms are three pairs of eyes: Black men directly affected by mass incarceration peer out behind the violence they have been dealt since childhood. In this work, artist Russell Craig, a co-chair of the OG Experience, explores the psychological trauma of his seven-year-long incarceration.

Daniel McCarthy Clifford, “The Leavenworth Project: Memorial Trays” and Jesse Krimes, “Purgatory” (2009)

Daniel McCarthy Clifford’s “The Leavenworth Project: Memorial Trays” commemorates political prisoners held in Leavenworth, Kansas penitentiaries, detailing the stories of individual detainees on cafeteria trays.

In “Knock Out,” artist Jhafis Quintero fights his own projection, a conceptual manifestation of his internal strife and the emotional battles of incarceration, an unending self-punishment coupled by a state-sanctioned abuse of power. (Quintero became an artist during his 10-year prison sentence.) And at a nearby bench you could listen to excerpts from Dwayne Betts’s self-published book Bastards of the Reagan Era, in which he speaks of the crack epidemic, sharing personal, familial, and community stories, asking, “How can a man inhale so much violence and not change?” The epidemic devastated Black communities 1980s and ’90s, and its effects are still being felt, with many of its victims still incarcerated to this day, as the crisis was used to fuel the rapidly growing prison industrial complex by politicians like Ronald Reagan and the Clintons.

Jhafis Quintero, “Knock Out” (2010), video
Jesse Krimes, “Solitary Cell” (2019) and Sherill Roland “After the Wakeup” (2019)

Jesse Krimes, a co-curator of the exhibition, recreated a prison cell in the gallery, inside of which artist Sherrill Rolland invited participants to sketch on the wall with a screwdriver, creating a living mural of the emotional responses of exhibition-goers. Standing inside the cell was, plainly, an agonizing experience — but a daily reality for millions.

I had the chance to speak with Krimes to talk about The OG Experience and his own artistic process. We discussed his project “Purgatory,” which he created during a one-year stint in solitary confinement, before smuggling the miniature artworks outside of the prison. Using a transfer method, Krimes copied images of celebrities and incarcerated people onto carved soaps, equalizing their societal contributions and questioning ideas of crime, punishment, and who is made a target by the state.

Later, Krimes developed a more advanced method of image transfer. During his six-year sentence, he discovered a process in which he could transfer images onto fabric using hair gel and created “Apokaluptein 16389067,” a massive tapestry of appropriated images and original drawings. From a distance, the work appears a cohesive tapestry of celebrity iconography, but upon closer inspection, it reveals a pieced-together mosaic of religious figures, nude women, celebrities, and iconic brands and artworks. Krimes smuggled the massive work out, bedsheet by bedsheet, through the prison mail service, never seeing, or intending, the works to be hung together before his release.

Jesse Krimes, “Purgatory” (2009), prison-issued soap, newspaper transfers, used playing cards, dimensions vary

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Hyperallergic: I’d love to hear a little bit about how you discovered the process of this hair gel transfer onto fabric.

Jesse Krimes: It’s kind of a variety of different things, but when I was first arrested and sent into prison, they put me in solitary confinement for the first year, which was pre-sentence. Being in there and not having access to any art materials whatsoever, I needed to figure out a way to create work, because it’s always been something that has helped me cope with a lot of different things, even from when I was a child. When I went in, I immediately knew that investing myself in something, creating something, was going to be important.

So I started cutting out images from the newspaper and transferring them onto the surface of prison-issued soaps. I guess the thing that kind of led me to that is I remember as a kid being able to take silly putty and putting it onto newsprint and peeling the image off. So in some way, I knew that the image would transfer, and I started doing that on hundreds of pieces of soap. And then I tried to figure out a way to do that onto the prison sheets themselves, and so at first, I tried to use water and transfer the image. The ink transferred, but it also bled, so the image was not legible. So I knew I needed something that had a little bit more viscosity to it, and I just looked at the commissary list and they had hair gel listed there.

I bought some, tried it, and it transferred, and it was just like a very crisp, clean image on the first try.

Jesse Krimes, “Apokaluptein 16389067” (2010-2013), prison-issued bedsheets, newspaper transfer, color pencil, graphite, 15 x 40 feet (photo by Kisha Bari and courtesy of Jesse Krimes)
Jesse Krimes, “Apokaluptein 16389067” (2010-2013) (detail), prison-issued bedsheets, newspaper transfer, color pencil, graphite

H: What was it like creating artwork in such a confined space? 

JK: When I started creating that large-scale piece, “Apokaluptein,” that was the final three years of my sentence, and so by that time I had gained access to the leisure center, which is a place where people can go in the general population, and they have an arts and crafts department there. So we basically had this tiny little closet that we could sign up for and get in. I think that being able to create was a way to maintain my sanity and humanity within that environment, but I also think it was a way for me to reflect on some of the things that are perpetuated within the media that weren’t necessarily visible to me prior to being incarcerated.

And so I never really thought of the project as being this massive thing. I never set out to create this large of a project. It was just something that I began creating out of necessity almost, and survival, as a way to do something productive with my time.

I would create one piece and ship it out, and then I’d still have three years left. So I was like, “Okay. What am I gonna do? Maybe I’ll create more of these,” and I envisioned them being individual works that would hang on a wall.

I was also reading Foucault’s Discipline and Punish and Giorgio Agamben’s The Kingdom and the Glory and Dante’s Divine Comedy, and so through reading all of those things and collecting all of the imagery out of the newspaper, the piece just kind of kept growing, and I decided to add an upper and lower section to create a sort of triptych.

Over time, it just kind of built upon itself as I learned more and more of what I was doing and why I was doing it, and I basically created that and replicated that process over the entire three years of my sentence.

Jesse Krimes, “Apokaluptein 16389067” (2010-2013) (detail), prison-issued bedsheets, newspaper transfer, color pencil, graphite
Jesse Krimes, “Apokaluptein 16389067” (2010-2013) (detail), prison-issued bedsheets, newspaper transfer, color pencil, graphite

H: What was it like seeing that work altogether for the first time?

JK: It was really emotional because so much of that experience and what our prison system is designed to do is pretty much destroy you. It’s designed to take away your identity, it’s designed to take away your humanity, and I think in creating that work and investing myself in something meaningful, and coming home and getting to see the final thing … it was something that made me feel like I came out of this situation intact, like I’m still a whole human being, and that this thing did not destroy me and it did not take away who I am at my core or change me in a way that it was designed to do.

H: How long have you been an artist?

JK: Ever since I was young. I was always creating things. Growing up, I was an only child. My mother was 16, no father, and grew up super poor, as well. And so creating has always been a space where I felt safe, and it’s always been a space where I’ve been able to work out some of my own personal experiences in a way that helped me understand who I am in relation to everything else happening, but also the world in general.

And then I ended up going to college for art. However, I got arrested, lost my scholarships, came home, went to a different school, violated my parole, went back to prison, came home, went back to school, and finally graduated from a small school in Pennsylvania with my bachelors in art. And then, shortly after I got indicted and served my six-year federal prison sentence.

Jesse Krimes, “Apokaluptein 16389067” (2010-2013) (detail), prison-issued bedsheets, newspaper transfer, color pencil, graphite

H: What kind of art are you making now?

JK: There are so many projects that I’m working on simultaneously, but one of them is a project that I’m doing through the Art for Justice Fund and the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation grant. I got two grants from each organization, and I’ve been working in a rural part of Pennsylvania to create workshops and create visual works around issues of incarceration, and figure out how to use artwork as a catalyst to create conversations with audiences who wouldn’t typically come to an exhibition, say, in New York or Chelsea or Philadelphia.

As a part of that, I’ve been working with a bunch of reentry organizations in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and members of the district attorney’s office and police department, and other social service providers, religious organizations, and formerly incarcerated people from the area, and we’ve been doing collective workshops and doing image transfers similar to what I was doing. And so collectively, all of the works are going to be compiled and we’re turning them into these massive quilts. They all revolve around people’s conceptions of safety and what that means to them personally, and other conceptions of justice and liberty.

These final quilts will be displayed inside of a barn that we’re building with the Amish community in the center of a corn maze, which a farmer has donated his land for. The corn maze is our big draw in Lancaster and it’s, again, figuring out how to create something in a space to engage an audience that typically wouldn’t come to an art exhibition. So yeah, building the barn, working with formerly incarcerated people, displaying the work inside of that barn and having to navigate through the corn maze in order to get to it. There’s also going to be a bunch of public programming that surrounds all of that. That’s my next big undertaking.

H: That’s amazing.

JK: I’ve never built a barn before, so it should be interesting.

H: If there’s anything else that you want to say about the OG Experience show or about any of the other artworks, I would love to hear that.

JK: I was one of the co-curators on the project. Two years ago, I ended up co-founding the Right of Return Fellowship, which is the first fellowship in the country which directly supports formerly incarcerated artists — only supports formerly incarcerated artists. And through that fellowship program, we receive hundreds of hundreds of applications from absolutely brilliant artists across the country in all of these different disciplines. And when HBO contacted Daveen Trentman, from the SOZE Agency, who I’ve worked with over the years to co-found the Right or Return Fellowship, she asked me if I wanted to curate this project.

Having the opportunity to use this film, which I think is unique in the way that it is put together, as a way to create pathways for other artists who have the lived experience of incarceration to be able to show their own work, control their own narrative, and speak on their own behalf, was really interesting and powerful for me. Honestly, I feel like it’s one of the first exhibitions to my knowledge that’s ever done something like this. So even within the contemporary art world, when we are having conversations about incarceration, they’re often had by people who don’t have the lived experience, when there’s a vast wealth of individuals who are creating just brilliant, critically rigorous works that never get shown in these spaces. And so this was a way to kind of correct for that omission and include people who have the lived experience, in a meaningful way, into the conversation.

Russell Craig, “Self-Portrait” (2016) (detail), pastel over legal documents
Jaiquan Fayson, “Self-Portrait” (2013), oil on canvas
Daniel McCarthy Clifford, “The Leavenworth Project: Memorial Trays”

The OG Experiencecurated by Jesse Krimes and Daveen Trentman, was on view at Gallery 525 in Chelsea Manhattan February 20-25.

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