Russell Craig’s self portrait is way more detailed than it looks. It’s not that the wall-sized pastel-based interpretation of his face isn’t spot-on. It looks just like him, right down to the close-cropped haircut and boyish brown eyes. But when you step closer to the canvas, it morphs from a man’s face into a story about his life: From his sentencing for a nonviolent drug conviction in Philadelphia to his parole hearing to his transition into a halfway house, the enormous image is emblazoned across paperwork Craig saved from the seven years he spent making his way through the criminal justice system.
But he’s free now. And he’s eager to introduce the world to a man that has–despite the prison system’s soul-crushing approach to “rehabilitation” and the early doubts of those who knew him–fundamentally changed. “That’s me on top of the papers, because that stuff is behind me,” says Craig. “That stuff that landed me in prison, I’m not into that anymore. It’s like a new life.”
By drawing atop his prison papers, Craig found a way to present himself to the world anew while acknowledging his past in the way that seems most productive: by making a statement about the biases and flaws of the U.S. criminal justice system, an issue that has only grown more prescient and urgent since his release.
“I separated it into four different canvases and placed myself in the middle, symbolizing a black man being targeted by the system,” he says. “Mass incarceration is what was really in my mind at the time. But now the police are killing blacks and getting away with it.”
After teaching himself to draw and paint in prison, Craig returned home to Philadelphia three years ago and is now working for the city’s Mural Arts Program, an organization he learned about when they visited his prison as part of their restorative justice program. Earlier this week, his self portrait was on display at Truth to Power, an art exhibit and social justice forum in Philadelphia that was timed to coincide with the Democratic National Convention. The exhibit, sponsored by Rock the Vote and #Cut50 and coproduced by local design firms J2 and SEDSO Design, features over 200 pieces of socially conscious, sometimes uncomfortably bold artwork, from big names like Banksy and Shepard Fairey to Philly locals like Nosego, Joe Boruchow, and Drew Leshko–and Russell Craig, of course.
“Art was completely necessary,” says Craig of the time he spent incarcerated. “It’s what got me through it. I really took to it because it was an escape.”
For Craig, learning to create art started as a productive distraction from the brutal existence of living in Pennsylvania’s largest maximum security prison complex. But, as he soon realized, it also had the potential to help him pave a path back home that didn’t lead right back to the streets of North Philadelphia.
“It was sort of like art school, but I had to be the teacher and the student,” Craig says. “I just did it the whole time.” After sketching with pencils and learning to paint from books in the prison library, he was eventually gifted with a set of pastels from another inmate.
He knew he was onto something the day he sat down with his pencil and started sketching Lil’ Wayne. “I wasn’t even doing it to sell it and some white guy bought it immediately,” says Craig. “That’s when I knew that this is what I want to do. I thought, if I can sell art here, I can sell art out in the world.”
Shortly after his release, Craig met another former inmate with a knack for visual creativity. Jesse Krimes had recently graduated from art school when he was arrested for cocaine possession, convicted, and sent to federal prison for 70 months. Like Craig, Krimes spent his days behind bars intensely focused on creating art, albeit with a very different approach.
With limited access to traditional art supplies, Krimes made due with what was within arm’s reach. Using hair gel and plastic spoons, he transferred ink from newspapers onto the bed sheets in his prison cell and amended the resulting imagery using colored pencils. Using this meticulous process, Krimes constructed surreal, politically suggestive collages that blended images depicting current events with vacation getaway spots from the travel section, among whatever other visuals happened to grace the pages of the New York Times on any given day.
“It’s not meant to be a very direct statement of ‘this is right’ or ‘this is wrong,'” says Krimes of his mass media mashups. “It’s meant to get people to think more about the information that they digest and the sources of this information.”
As each bed sheet filled up with colors and lines, Krimes shipped them back home one by one–technically committing a crime, since prison bed sheets are federal property. Over the course of three years, he amassed 49 sheets, which he later pieced together into a single mural titled apokaluptein:16389067, creating one giant, visually cohesive image, one rectangle at a time, and relying on his memory and imagination to visualize the completed image.
One of Krimes’s smaller bed sheet pieces, titled Gucci Mane, spent the first half of DNC week on display at Truth to Power across from Craig’s self portrait. And like Craig’s work, his is subtly marked by a newly crystalized social consciousness he developed behind bars.
“A lot of things were revealed to me in there that I wasn’t quite aware of when I was out in society,” says Krimes. “You see how it dehumanizes people and how it robs people of hope. There’s nothing in there that is designed for people to be rehabilitated. It’s just human storage with an oppressive, dehumanizing effort on top of that.”
Both Krimes and Craig have spent their post-incarceration life as fully immersed in art as possible. They both do work with the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program and continue to hone their respective crafts and forge careers that were once unimaginable. As convention delegates, local residents, artists, journalists, and celebrities packed the Truth to Power exhibit this week–with its nonpartisan works touching on themes of criminal justice, feminism, war, racial equality, and much else– it’s hard to imagine that the profiles of the artists involved weren’t raised. Not that they weren’t already headed places: Next week, Krimes is set to open his first New York installation in a gallery in Chelsea.
For artists like Krimes and Craig, the professional trajectory may appear unconventional to those who have never been ensnared in the criminal justice system, but as free men, their biggest challenge is one to which anyone can relate: simply focusing.
“When I was in prison, I was really focused,” says Craig, who, like Krimes, spent the majority of his waking hours working on his art. “There was nothing else. There was no girlfriend, no kid. Nothing. It’s hard to focus that deep out here. There’s a lot of distractions.”
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