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New Book on Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration

Some of these artists have formal training. Some are self-taught, honing their skills through years of practice behind bars. A few have natural talent. For the most part, prison art is just that, prison art. It stays behind bars, mailed to a person in the free world, or perhaps donated to a public radio station to be given to a donor during pledge week. It is seldom seen by the public, which is actually a great loss not only to the art world, but also to the world in general.

Thanks to author Nicole R. Fleetwood and the Harvard University Press, prison art and the artists who produce it will soon be readily accessible to the art world and the public. Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration is Fleetwood’s newest book. It focuses on prisoner-produced art as well as the artists’ motivations and inspirations that drive them. Although the book delves into many currently incarcerated artists, Artnews interviewed former prisoners Russell Craig and Jesse Krimes from Pennsylvania and Alabama native Tameca Cole as part of its review of Fleetwood’s book.

Cole describes herself as “an avid reader.” She took  a prison writing class several times. When she understood she could write, “it made everything else inside me blossom.” Although she eventually was able to take an art class where charcoal, pencils and erasers were issued, her main work is in collage. Dealing with a deep-seated anger problem, she began to use art as a means of acceptable, appropriate self-expression rather than open defiance and rebellion against authority. Much of her art goes to the Die Jim Crow organization. She supports police defunding and the Black Lives Matter Movement. She wants for her art “to stand for something.”

Russell Craig found art at age 7 and rediscovered it in prison. “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.” Rather than accept a menial prison job for miniscule wages, Craig made a good living doing portraits for other prisoners. He made glue from bread, water, and toothpaste for his papier-mâché projects and used prison documents when he ran out of paper. He is enrolled in an arts-centered curriculum at Bard College and is learning to do leather art.

Jesse Krimes used art growing up as his way “to deal with childhood trauma.” Kept in solitary confinement for his first year in prison, he used art to occupy his time and stay mentally healthy. He began thinking “about how to use the creation of art, in particular the use of [the prison’s] materials, to use the prison against itself, as a form of resistance.” Prison art allowed Krimes to establish his own value system within an environment where everything had been taken from him. The creativity that art gave him was one thing prison could not strip from him. He is currently curating “Rendering Justice,” an online exhibition at the African American Museum in Philadelphia, part of Mural Arts Philadelphia’s Reimagining Reentry Fellowship.

It appears that prison artists do well for themselves after release. It would be interesting to conduct a study correlating recidivism rates for artists. 


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