The Overlooked Dilemma of Incarcerated Artists

A gripping new documentary sheds light on Jesse Krimes, a formerly incarcerated artist who’s working to empower creatives whom the prison system may have swept under the rug.

Jesse Krimes with a mural created in prison. Image courtesy of MTV Documentary Films

In 2010, while Jesse Krimes was serving six years on drug-related charges at the Fairton Federal Correctional Institution in South New Jersey, he was hard at work making his magnum opus. The Pennsylvania native teamed up with prison mates and fellow artists Gilberto Rivera and Jared Owens to form a secret collective, sharing camaraderie and art supplies to help each other create through tough times. All Krimes needed to make art were prison bed sheets that he collaged with newspaper images using hair gel and a spoon to transfer the printed ink onto his canvases. He smuggled the sheets out piecemeal over the course of three years until they culminated in his most ambitious work to date.

That work, a monumental 15-by-40-foot mural titled Apokaluptein: 16389067 after the Greek word for “apocalypse” coupled with his inmate number, would soon galvanize greater visibility for formerly incarcerated artists. Hailed as both a “carceral magnum opus” and a “Hieronymus Bosch–like allegory of heaven, earth, and hell,” it formed the centerpiece of a landmark MoMA PS1 exhibition organized by MacArthur award-winning historian Nicole Fleetwood about that cross-section of marginalized artists in 2020. It would also become a major focus of “Art & Krimes by Krimes,” a disarming film by MTV Documentary Films streaming on Paramount+.

Russell Craig and Jesse Krimes. Image courtesy MTV Documentary Films

Directed by Alysa Nahmias, the film chronicles the making of both Apokaluptein and Krimes’s first five years out of jail as he struggles to reacclimate to everyday life and forge a career in the art world. Nahmias structures the film as a linear biography appropriately infused with an artistic sensibility thanks to animator Molly Schwartz, whose gripping illustrations add another dimension to Krimes’s candid interviews. Viewers follow along as Krimes, faced with scant finances or job opportunities, realizes the towering difficulties faced by former prisoners. Though he makes some missteps, he finds strength from his moral compass—steered in large part by new fatherhood—and the community of artists he met while serving time.

His career takes off when Krimes meets Russell Craig, another formerly incarcerated artist, while they worked as assistants for Mural Arts Philadelphia’s restorative justice program. As Krimes’s art-world success steadily grew with solo exhibitions and representation at Malin Gallery, he confronts two harrowing realities: his white skin affords him more advantages than his Black and Brown peers, and some of the country’s great artists are being relegated to obscurity because of incarceration.

“The thing that’s frustrating to me is that people who have been in prison, who are super exceptionally talented artists, are not getting projects, not getting platforms, in the top-tier contemporary art sphere,” Krimes says in the film. “One in three people has a criminal record, and so that’s a clear signal to me that there’s a whole pool of wasted talent—not just in the prison system but people who have since come home.”

“Apokaluptein: 16389067” (2010–13) by Jesse Krimes. Photography by Matthew Septimus, courtesy of the artist and Malin Gallery

With a grant from Open Philanthropy, Krimes and Russell founded the Right of Return fellowship, the country’s first initiative providing financial support to formerly incarcerated artists. Each year, it grants six artists $20,000 to support projects that reveal the humanity of prisoners and advocate for structural change. (Recipients include Mary Enoch Elizabeth Baxter, Sherrill Roland, Gilberto Rivera, and Tameca Cole.) The duo received $1.1 million from the Mellon Foundation to expand into a nonprofit called the Art and Advocacy Society, which encompasses a residency program and school whose pilot program is being developed with former MoMA PS1 director Kate Fowle, who helped bring Apokaluptein to the museum.

Though much work remains in revealing the nuances and talents of this marginalized group, the broader art industry is starting to pay attention. In 2017, the philanthropist Agnes Gund sold a Roy Lichtenstein masterwork for $165 million to launch the Art for Justice Fund in pursuit of criminal justice reform. The fund has financially supported Silver Art Projects, a nonprofit that provides free studio spaces and career opportunities to 28 emerging artists from marginalized communities. (Krimes, Craig, and Owens are all participants.) They most recently mounted a powerful Owens-curated group show at Malin Gallery’s Wynwood outpost during Miami Art Week that explored the racism imbued within a rarely sung verse of “The Star Spangled Banner,” bringing the work of their community to an international audience. 

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