Incarcerated Artists Are Making Some of Today’s Most Important Art. A Powerful New Book Explains Why.

While the more than 2 million people are currently incarcerated in the United States, the prison system is still largely invisible to the average American. Likewise, art by inmates has largely gone unseen in the U.S. art scene—which will soon be rectified by Nicole R. Fleetwood’s new book Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration, out now from Harvard University Press. The book, which focuses on work made by incarcerated and formerly incarcerated artists, will eventually be accompanied by a show of the same name at MoMA PS1 in New York. (The show was originally scheduled to open in April, but was delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic.) To hear more about the project, ARTnews convened a Zoom discussion about it with Fleetwood and three of the artists discussed in the book: Tameca Cole, Russell Craig, and Jesse Krimes.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

ARTnews: Nicole, in your book Marking Time you mention how difficult it can be to see art made in prisons. How did you research work that was so tough to view in person?

Nicole R. Fleetwood: This project was produced because so many people were willing to collaborate, provide access, and share resources. It’s a very different sense of how to foster an art community than what often happens in more monetized, established art circles. I learned from people as they were sharing. Jesse, for example, introduced me to Russell and Gilberto [Rivera] and Jared [Owens], who are central artists in the book, and then I met Tameca through an activist and producer named Fury Young, who was starting a nonprofit called Die Jim Crow.

It took many years, and part of why it took so long was the logistics of getting access to certain things, especially people in more restrictive prisons. Many artists had their materials or their art confiscated, or they made art for a nonprofit and community service group while in prison and now have no idea where that art is circulated. For example, Tyra Patterson, who’s friends with Russell and Jesse—she did a lot of art while she was in prison in Ohio, wrongfully convicted for 23 years, and she doesn’t know where most of that art is because it became part of a larger circulation of prison art that benefits organizations. That kind of circulation doesn’t always benefit the artist who produces the work.

ARTnews: Russell and Jesse, you both started making art before you went into prison. How did that impact the work you made while you were incarcerated?

Russell Craig: As a child, around the age of seven, I had an interest in art. Once I was in prison, I reconnected with art and started taking it more seriously. It was a way to navigate my time while I was in prison, but it was also about the possibilities of using art to make a career and get out of the system. I’m glad it worked.

Jesse Krimes: My story is somewhat similar to Craig’s, in that artwork has always been a space for me to feel comfortable—growing up and having to deal with childhood traumas. When I went into the prison system, the first year I was placed in solitary confinement because I wasn’t willing to snitch on other people. I realized something very quickly. One, I needed something to occupy my time in order to maintain my sanity, and two, I wanted to really think about how to use the creation of art, in particular the use of materials, to use the prison against itself, as a form of resistance.

ARTnews: Tameca, how did you come to art making while in prison?

Tameca Cole: I discovered the writer in me through a writing class [first], and I continued to sign up for it over and over again. Once it came to my attention that I was telling it as a writer, it made everything else inside me blossom.

Fleetwood: Tameca was taking classes through a program called Alabama Prison Arts + Education Project. It’s connected with Auburn University. Kyes Stevens, who’s really been active in prison art education for a long time, was a part of that. So, that was part of the support you got, right, Tameca?

Cole: Yes. I think I had an anger problem. I felt like, if I was in a position where I’d lost all my rights, and you were in a position of authority, then it’s wrong for you to treat me like this. I got in a lot of trouble, so I had to find other ways to express how I felt.

ARTnews: In Nicole’s book, she mentions how tough it can be for inmates to obtain materials for their art. Tameca, how did you go about doing that?

Cole: I’m an avid reader, and most of what I do is collage. I went to the library, stayed as long as I could, just to get magazines. Sometimes, I’d steal the magazines, or people would give me them. They ended up having an art class where we got charcoal, erasers, pencils, and whatnot.

a black persons eyes and mouth cut out from a photographed collaged onto a gray graphite-covered sheet of paper

Tameca Cole: Locked in a Dark Calm, 2016, collage and graphite on paper.

Fleetwood: Tameca, people love your work Locked in a Dark Calm [2016]. Can you talk about the materials you used to make it?

Cole: Someone had really, really ticked me off. I really, really had to harness stuff like that, to keep from exploding. That was one of those days when I almost crossed the line. I was getting ready to go to class, and I hadn’t done my homework. I was just furious. I was just on the paper like a little kid, and I was darkening it out. People would try to talk to me, but I couldn’t hear their voices—I couldn’t hear nothing they were saying—and when I got to class, they thought it was the best thing since sliced bread. I was shocked. I really don’t think of myself as an artist, to be honest.

Fleetwood: You know you are an artist. You’re just reluctant to claim it.

Cole: I guess I just didn’t know at that time.

ARTnews: Jesse, were you allowed to make art while incarcerated?

Krimes: Everything I did was clandestine. I had to work in secret, and other people on the block would basically give me a signal if a guard was coming by, so I knew to hide my materials. I would get very old newspapers so that I could cut them up but also not interfere with people’s ability to read and obtain the information. Because I was using them as a material to cut them up and transfer them onto the prison sheets with hair gel and a spoon, I was at the very end of a line [of inmates who made use of the newspapers] comprised of 2,000 people in the compound. It was a massive collective process, but it had to be kept hidden, so that [the art] wouldn’t be taken and destroyed, potentially landing me back in solitary for destruction of prison property.

ARTnews: Russell, you sold the portraits you made in while in prison. Were guards aware of that?

Craig: The prison I was at was kind of understanding of [inmates] having art materials like paint and paintbrushes—probably more than some other prisons. I think that had to do with Mural Arts Philadelphia having a relationship with the prison—they had in the branch in which inmates were making murals in the auditorium. There were certain materials that were more unconventional. I was familiar with papier-mâché from when I was a kid, but I’d make a substitute because I didn’t have glue, so I would use toothpaste instead. I’d take bread from the cafeteria—you’re not really supposed to do that. I’d take flour, then put it in water and it would turn into dough again, and I used flour on the newspapers.

When I didn’t have access to paper, I’d take prison documents. I’d take prison documents because that started from inside. That’s not just for myself—it’s a thing a lot of inmates do, just making art on top of prison documents. I established a portrait business inside, and I’d take a No. 2 pencil and draw on the prison documents. They’d give a shakedown and tell me I had more supplies than I was allowed.

Fleetwood: Jesse and Russell’s works are really powerful examples of how prison art resists. Unless you have been sentenced to prison, you have no idea what it’s like to experience time as a measure of punishment. You wake up, you’re being punished. You’re eating a meal, you’re being punished. You’re taking a shower, you’re being punished. It’s revolutionary to turn that experience into one of aesthetic engagement, creativity, something beyond the state’s management.

Craig: Also, having the portrait business inside the prison is itself a rebellion. In the prison system, they say it’s mandatory for you to get a job—you’re mopping the floor or something and getting paid 25 cents an hour. I never had one of those jobs. I was defiant. I created my own world inside a world.

Fleetwood: You didn’t let the state exploit your labor. You refused to take on that type of punishment.

Krimes: Tameca said something earlier that really made me think: The prison system is really designed to strip you of everything. They take you away from your family that you hold dear and love. They’ve tried to strip everything away from you and grind you down to the point where you buy into the idea that you are somehow not different, that you somehow don’t have any value, and that you are just a criminal. But the thing that artwork does, like Nicole was saying, is, it allows you to create your own value system. It’s the one thing the prison cannot take away from you. In that space of creativity, you have the full autonomy and agency to do whatever you want, however you want to do it, create whatever world you want to create, and that little space can be infinite, and it’s enough to see multitudes of everything that exists within you.

ARTnews: Did you all have artistic mentors while in prison?

Craig: I definitely had a mentor that was significant to my development as an artist in prison: James Hough. All I would do all day was draw. I had a cellmate, so I’d get out of the cell to give him some space. James would see me drawing all the time, especially those pieces on paper, because he also was working on prison documents, but his were more conceptual, intentionally [drawing] on the documents to make a statement or connection. When I worked on prison documents, it was because I didn’t have a paper. Then, it started to be a defiant thing with a purpose. I started having that understanding. That mentorship allowed me to have a better grasp on the art. I met Jesse when I was out, and he carried the torch from James. It was like I was in art school, and I’d tell them that they were like my professors. Now, I’m in school [at Bard College], and it reminds me of Jesse and James.

Krimes: I had the opportunity before my last prison sentence to graduate from art school. I had professors who saw something in me, appreciated my work, and really pushed me, conceptually, philosophically, and technically. I had that educational background and I had that mentorship going into prison, which was instrumental. It radically shifted how I was looking at the prison system itself because of professors who encouraged me to read Foucault and all the other philosophers thinking about how these systems are constructed and operate.

Jesse Krimes, Apokaluptein 16389067, 2010–13.

ARTnews: Nicole, how can the art discussed in your book also teach us about mass incarceration?

Fleetwood: I think it’s really important not just to discuss the art, but to discuss the system that this art is coming out of and responding to. We’re supposedly decarcerating—people are being let out—but so many people are getting this very cruel parole. Even though we’re supposedly decarcerating, in a way we’re just expanding carceral structures. There’s also lots of entities benefitting from that. Often, people who are on life parole are wearing some kind of a monitor—they’re actually paying fees. They’re actually paying for this partial freedom. Tameca’s story is an example of that.

Cole: They said that after five years I can apply for a pardon. I have to have pressure on myself to do something. I have a piece I’ve been working on for a while, and it’s getting close to the deadline.

ARTnews: Russell, can you talk about making art since being out of prison?

Craig: I’m juggling school, but also working on a new body of work, “Dark Reflection,” for the Art for Justice grantee position. I’m doing a mural that’s going in downtown Philadelphia—this is the second one. I’m doing a smaller version that’s going on a municipal building called Crown.

Fleetwood: What about your leather bag project?

Craig: The leather represents the Black body in America being mistreated in the system. That idea came from Ernest Joyner. Once they got wind of our communication, he got shipped out, so we wouldn’t be able to keep getting him materials, so I just continued. And at the African-American Museum [in Philadelphia], I’ve got a mural that’s entirely [made] of leather. It’s for my mentor James Hough, to highlight his situation. He’s doing 25 years, and [Equal Justice Initiative founder] Bryan Stevenson is trying to get him out. The African-American Museum is right across the street from a federal prison, so the work will be in conversation with it.

ARTnews: And Jesse, you’re working on an exhibition that goes alongside that one, right?

Krimes: Yes. I’m curating an exhibition in Philadelphia that’s part of Craig’s project, which is a citywide mural exhibition with a corresponding exhibition at the African-American Museum in Philadelphia. For my personal work, as a part of my Creative Capital grant, I’m working with Ernest Joyner again. Part of the project that I’m working on now is collecting clothing from men and women who have been incarcerated and people who have family members that are incarcerated, and cutting it up and turning it into these handmade quilts, on which I’m painting portraits of the guys who are currently incarcerated. Ernest Joyner is basically facilitating that project from inside the prison, and I’m paying to gather other guys to stage their own photographs, but also to select imagery out of magazines or books or newspapers in ways that they want their pose to be integrated. It’s a way of fighting back how so often people are portrayed through popular media and providing people not only with monetary support to create artwork but also to give them access to control how they are seen in public.

ARTnews: Nicole, prison abolitionism, defunding the police, and other associated issues have increased visibility right now. Are you noticing prison art changing in response to all this?

Fleetwood: Artist Mark Loughney, whose work is on the cover of the book, is still incarcerated, and he’s added a series to this of incarcerated people wearing face masks. He’s thinking about it from the inside. I’ve been in various Zoom groups with formerly incarcerated artists and people who are on the front line of bringing attention to the conditions of incarceration. I think what’s beyond infuriating is the lack of responsibility that local, state, and federal governments are taking to ensure the safety and health of incarcerated people. We’ve seen how quick and nimble some leaders can be around responding to the pandemic, and there’s an unwillingness to move quickly and with care to protect people in prison. It’s beyond a travesty. I’d say that these officials are responsible for the sick people and potentially for the deaths from Covid-19. To be in prison right now is akin to having a death sentence.

ARTnews: Jesse, has your work changed in response? 

Krimes: I’m working on a 20-by-30-foot quilt that is comprised of 3,650 quilt squares, and on the surface of the quilt are artist’s renderings of the newly proposed jails in New York City. On the layer inside the quilt are 3,650 images of documented violence that has perpetrated by Rikers Island on the people who have been incarcerated there. The idea is that this quilt can be deployed and people who are directly by the system can come up, make a slash mark on the outside of the quilt, cutting through this representation of the new jails.

With this quilt, I want to have the conversations around defunding the police and shifting priorities, to have it not be siloed and to connect it to how we’re spending our money on these new jails. We’re in a situation where governors of states could decide, in one day, to let out 50 percent of their jail and prison populations, and it would have zero impact on public safety. I’m trying to figure out a way, as an artist, to have something that keeps this issue visible, that keeps it in the public eye because there’s so much happening that it can all get lost. People aren’t invisible, but they’re behind walls, so it’s easy to seem like the issue is faceless, when it should be upfront and a priority.

Cole: I fully support the Black Lives Matter movement, and I fully support defunding the police. Alabama [where Cole is based] does not care about what the rest of the country is doing. They are going to keep their inmates locked up, and they are going to keep you connected to some kind of probation or parole for as long as they can. I’ve got some other work to do, as an artist and as a creative person, and I want it to stand for something.

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