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From prison to art gallery, former inmates take center stage

todayJune 7, 2023

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    From prison to art gallery, former inmates take center stage NPR

Installation view, No Justice Without Love (April 4 - June 30, 2023). Sebastian Bach/Ford Foundation Gallery
Installation view, No Justice Without Love (April 4 – June 30, 2023). Sebastian Bach/Ford Foundation Gallery

When Sherrill Roland talks about his art, he’s sure to mention steel, resin and Kool-Aid. These materials, easily accessible during his time in prison, still figure prominently in the art he creates now that he’s free.

“You’d be surprised how many Kool-Aid flavors there are,” Roland said.

He used lemonade-flavored Kool-Aid in his featured piece “168.803,” and cherry, blue raspberry and grape flavors in other sculptures in this series.

Kool-Aid-filled lines represent the offset pattern of a cinder block wall Roland stared at during his time in jail in 2013 while dreaming about his home in North Carolina.

“This was an unsafe space,” Roland said. “Home, in relation to this environment, was a safe space.”

Roland, who was wrongfully incarcerated on a misdemeanor charge for more than 10 months during his first year of graduate school, is one of the artists featured in the Ford Foundation Gallery’s show, “No Justice Without Love.” The works, on display through June 30, address themes of mass incarceration and criminal justice, and many of the featured artists are formerly incarcerated.

The exhibit was created in partnership with the Art For Justice Fund, a non-profit organization that provides grants to formerly incarcerated artists.

The fund, which recently announced its last class of grantees, was founded in 2017 by philanthropist Agnes Gund, who sold a $165 million painting by leading pop artist Roy Lichtenstein to kickstart the organization.

“This exhibition is a way to connect with one another, celebrate, and center our shared humanity,” said curator Daisy Desories.

Even though the fund is winding down its artist grants, Art for Justice is pursuing alternative paths to advocate for criminal justice system reform. The organization is providing financial support to the Center for Advocacy and Art, which provides fellowship and mentorship to artists impacted by the criminal justice system. The fellowship was founded in 2017 by two of Art for Justice’s earliest grantees, Jesse Krimes and Russell Craig.

“From the beginning, Art for Justice has been incredibly supportive, connecting us to other artists and advocates,” Krimes said. “I don’t know where I would be without them. Or who I would be without them, honestly.”

Jesse Krimes, "Marion," 2021. Antique quilt, used clothing collected from incarcerated people, assorted textiles. Courtesy of the artist and Ford Foundation Gallery
Jesse Krimes, “Marion,” 2021. Antique quilt, used clothing collected from incarcerated people, assorted textiles. Courtesy of the artist and Ford Foundation Gallery

Krimes began making art during his 13-year sentence for drug-related charges. He spent the first year in solitary confinement, where he drew on his bedsheets with pencils. When another inmate found out that he was an artist, he slipped Krimes an art history textbook through the cracks between their cells.

“Making artwork in there in the purest sense was freedom and what it was like to kind of get lost in my own world of making,” Krimes said. “It felt like I wasn’t in prison.”

Now that he’s free, Krimes still uses materials that reflect incarceration, like the clothing of prisoners with whom he speaks. “Marion” is part of a series of quilts reflecting what an inmate misses the most from the time he or she was free.

The inmate he spoke with for “Marion” described what he missed most as a forest where he would meditate. Purple trees surround a small wooden chair and a mat in the quilt. There’s a large black and white bird in the foreground.

Russell Craig, "Cognitive Thinking," 2023. Courtesy of the artist and Ford Foundation Gallery
Russell Craig, “Cognitive Thinking,” 2023. Courtesy of the artist and Ford Foundation Gallery

One of the biggest pieces in the gallery is “Cognitive Thinking,” by Brooklyn-based Russell Craig. Some of the 15-foot work’s canvas is made out of leather bags he buys from a current inmate.

Craig combines the bags, which he takes apart to create a single piece of leather painted in bright shades of blue and orange to represent prison jumpsuits. The bags’ metal hardware on the surface of the canvas represents prisoners’ constraints.

“The hide is the body of a cow,” Craig, whose longest stay in prison was seven years, said. “And they treat us like animals in there.”

Krimes hopes pieces like these will inspire people to think differently about those who live behind bars.

“It changes the understanding of populations all across the country who go out and vote for tough-on-crime policies and tough-on-crime politicians,” he said.

Mary Enoch Elizabeth Baxter also subverts common narratives about prison.

“A Gifted Child” features a childhood portrait alongside documents from schools, doctors and correctional facilities documenting how she grew up as a ward of the court. They’re layered with acceptance letters from prestigious colleges, articles about her first solo show in New York and report cards.

“I wanted certain things to stand out,” Baxter said. “I’m using their texts, their notes and highlighting things that subvert the very things they are saying.”

The digital version of this story was edited by Olivia Hampton.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.
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Written by: NPR

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