Jesse Krimes left prison and became a darling of the art world. He’s fighting to give other artists the same access.

Jesse Krimes hasn’t been to his studio in Manayunk in a while. Quilts and textiles both small and large adorn the walls. Everything is potential material for a future project — pieces of clothing, shackles, swaths of fabric, pebbles, 1940s mugshots, and even a gas tank from his uncle’s sprint car, which once raced through dirt roads in his hometown of Lancaster.

The artist goes back every other weekend to see his 14-year-old son, but the place holds painful memories; it’s where his stepfather died by suicide when Krimes was about his son’s age. Turning to alcohol and drugs to cope, Krimes was soon put on juvenile probation. He was in and out of prison on drug charges as he tried to complete college, first at Temple’s Tyler School of Art and Architecture, and later at Millersville University. A couple weeks after graduation, he ended up in federal prison serving his longest sentence, nearly six years for cocaine possession with intent to distribute.

“Since I was 13, I’ve been under some kind of carceral control,” said Krimes. “I’m clearly a very slow learner.”

The judge, Krimes said, handed down a lesser sentence because he said Krimes, the recent graduate, had potential. Earlier that day, the same judge sentenced a Black man with similar drug charges to 20 years.

Relieved at first, Krimes was angered by the staggering racial disparity. The resentment has since fueled not only his own artistic practice, but also his current efforts to foster a community of formerly incarcerated artists whose talent he believes can revolutionize criminal justice reform.

Krimes’s latest vehicle: his newly launched nonprofit Center for Art & Advocacy, could be the vehicle that gets him closer than ever to that vision..

The art of confinement

As a studio art major at Millersville, he combined living flowers and bronze structures, using grow lights to encourage the plants to overcome the sculptures’ stifling restrictions so they could thrive beyond the metal confines. The assemblages, called Coercion, reflected his experiences with incarceration, with a reminder that people can still grow despite oppression. No matter the limits, Krimes was determined to keep creating.

In prison, making art was more than a survival tactic to stay occupied. Krimes bonded with other incarcerated artists, debating the value of Matisse and Renoir while helping each other get supplies and providing creative feedback. They also helped smuggle precious artworks out.

For his large-scale mural Apokaluptein:16389067, Krimes used hair gel and plastic spoons to transfer newspaper images onto 39 panels — contraband prison-issued bed sheets were his canvases — to reflect hell, heaven, and earth, echoing Hieronymus Bosch. He clandestinely shipped out the work in parts to avoid confiscation.

A friend knew the mailmen and made sure each completed sheet was sent to Krimes’s girlfriend in Philadelphia.

In 2013, Krimes was released from prison and lived at the Kintock halfway house in North Philly. He participated in Mural Arts’ restorative justice program, which exposed him to other artists and art media. That year, Apokaluptein:16389067 showed at Philly’s Goldilocks Gallery and then in 2014 at Rutgers University’s Zimmerli Art Museum.

As he struggled to find jobs and stay out of trouble during those first few years, Krimes gained traction in news articles. He began hearing from more curators, including Rebecca Lamarche-Vadel, who invited him to show at Palais de Tokyo in Paris in 2015.

There, he exhibited another work created while incarcerated, Purgatory: 300 miniature portraits of newspaper photos he transferred onto bars of soap, then placed into playing card frames that he cut with a tool fashioned from a deconstructed battery. His journey was later the subject of an MTV documentary in 2022.

Krimes was an alluring talent for social justice-minded donors and curators alike. He readily admits that being a white man with a formal education led him to receive more leniency within the criminal justice system; he’s unsure of how this privilege affected his post-prison achievements.

“It maybe provided me with a lot more opportunities and more grace that was afforded to me than was maybe afforded to others,” he said. Krimes knows he’s receiving attention that formerly incarcerated artists don’t typically get, and he’s tried to use those benefits to advocate for others.

Building an artist-led movement

Through Mural Arts, Krimes met Russell Craig, a self-taught artist raised in Philly. They learned that they had faced similar drug charges and while Krimes had been caught with a much bigger stash, Craig, who is Black, served more time on a 5-to-10 year sentence. It was a painfully unjust reality to reconcile, but the pair became friends and knew they wanted to address racial justice and mass incarceration through their artwork. They just needed the art world to take them, and other artists who had been imprisoned, seriously.

In 2017, with support from the Brooklyn-based Soze Agency, Craig and Krimes cofounded the Right of Return fellowship to annually grant six formerly incarcerated artists $20,000 to create art dedicated to criminal and racial justice advocacy.

Over the years, they cultivated a group of sculptors, filmmakers, poets, dancers, and creatives who each had their own stories of resilience and used art to both confront and heal from the trauma of incarceration. Krimes sees these artists as overlooked but essential voices in national conversations about criminal justice reform.

“So many of our artists have lost decades of artistic community,” said Krimes. “They’re coming home to a world that has radically changed, and they’re exceptionally talented, but they’ve struggled to get accepted into the mainstream.”

Though they have all faced enormous barriers reentering society and attempting to pursue professional artistic careers, the fellowship was a turning point for many. Krimes’s mentees have gone on to earn MacArthur and Pulitzer awards.

Mary Baxter had less than $5 in her bank account when she was selected for Right of Return’s inaugural cohort. She was experiencing homelessness and struggling to find work in Philly. The fellowship provided the time and resources for her to create the hip-hop video “Ain’t I a Woman” about her experience giving birth while shackled to a prison hospital bed. She then leveraged that work to connect with Sens. Cory Booker and Elizabeth Warren to promote a bill to ban shackling incarcerated women during birth. (It was introduced in 2017 and has not been passed.)

“I really enjoyed the autonomy — they really trusted the artists to make the work and make their own decisions, and that encouraged me to step up,” said Baxter. “Just being around a community of other artists was helpful…because we shared the same experience of incarceration and knew what it was like to be dehumanized.”

In 2020, Baxter, Craig, and Krimes all participated in the major exhibit “Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration” at MoMA PS1.

Stepping up

This spring, Krimes put his art-making on hold to expand the impact of Right of Return fellowship into the Center for Art & Advocacy. The organization now operates the fellowship in addition to a new academy and artist residency. He wants to exponentially increase the number of formerly incarcerated artists that he and his network can support.

“The scale of mass incarceration is huge, right? How do we create something that’s maybe not equal, but sizable enough that it creates a counterweight to the damage [it’s caused, while] providing support systems and structures of reparations and liberation for people who are coming home from those systems?” Krimes asked.

Opening its Brooklyn headquarters in October, the Center is the first artist-led organization supporting justice-impacted artists across the nation. Krimes is currently scouting a location for the residency in northeast Pennsylvania.

“He has such a strategic mind, he’s so analytical, and he has been on this quest for a very, very long time — he’s just been gathering momentum,” Helena Huang, a project director at the Ford Foundation, said of Krimes. She managed the Art for Justice Fund, an initiative that funded criminal justice reform efforts and provided a “transformative grant” of an undisclosed sum to the Center.

Krimes, who just signed with Jack Shainman Gallery in New York, hopes to have more time in his Manayunk studio in the coming months. Gray plastic shelves hold color-sorted fabrics and clothing items — from formerly and currently incarcerated people — that he incorporates into quilts. For one project, he’s creating elegy quilts in memory of 10 people who died in prison. The quilts, that use the clothing to create a portrait of the deceased, will be given to their families.

Fabric portraits appear in another of Krimes’s works as well. His Mass Incarceration Quilt Series will be a massive quilt stitching together individual portraits to display along the National Mall. He aims to make 2 million small quilts, one for every incarcerated person in the country.

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