Art After Incarceration: Jesse Krimes’ CA&A Will Begin Accepting Applications this Fall

A man in sunglasses holds open his shirt to reveal text
Right of Return Fellow Victor “Marka27” Quiñonez at the 2022 Right of Return Retreat in Arizona. Photo credit: Maurice Sartirana, courtesy of the Center for Art & Advocacy.

After she was given a camera at age 33, Beverly Price began taking pictures of children and adolescents in her native Washington, D.C., while also documenting the gentrification she saw in the city.

This year, Price, whose work has been featured at the National Museum of Women in the Arts and at several universities, was awarded a fellowship from Right of Return USA, an organization that supports formerly incarcerated artists. Price shoots with film and has lots of negatives and archives, and she says the $20,000 fellowship provided time to reflect.

“It gave me space to not have to hustle and bustle,” she told Observer. “I can be more productive in the work I’ve already created, and I can really think about what I’m doing so that it can have an impact.”

Right of Return USA had, until recently, been giving out six fellowships a year. But now, it’s transitioning into something bigger. With a major gift from the Art for Justice Fund, established by philanthropist Agnes Gund after selling Roy Lichtenstein’s Masterpiece for $165 million, the organization has expanded into the artist-led Center for Art & Advocacy (CA&A), which will offer residencies, retreats and classes for formerly incarcerated artists—and carry on Art for Justice’s legacy.

Three people, two men and one woman, pose for a photograph
Jesse Krimes, Agnus Gund and Russell Craig at the reception for the launch of CA&A. Photo credit: Lalea Raymond. Courtesy of the Center for Art & Advocacy

Jesse Krimes, who co-founded Right of Return USA with Russell Craig, is the director of the new organization. Craig will serve on the board, alongside Kate Fowle, Daveen Trentman,  Stephanie Ingrassia and Kate Capshaw.

“So many people apply to the fellowship every year, and they are often very technically gifted but have clearly lacked an artistic community and mentorship and knowing how to critically frame their work,” Krimes said. “It’s clear to me there’s a wealth of talent out there that needs a broader artistic community.”

The Center for Art & Advocacy will open in Brooklyn this fall, and having the Academy and Arts Incubator program in New York will let the organization work with emerging artists and offer feedback while creating a curriculum that art institutions all over the country can use to do similar work. Meanwhile, the Residency and Retreat in Pennsylvania will provide artists who lost years of their lives in prison with opportunities to create new work, according to Krimes. Residency spaces will include studios for photography, ceramics, painting, sculpture and filmmaking, exposing artists to new mediums.

Krimes grew up drawing and making little sculptures out of cardboard, but it wasn’t until he was in college, he said, that he thought about becoming an artist for a living. When he went to prison, he was determined to not give up on making things, and he used his time—one of the few luxuries he had—to make art with whatever materials were on hand, from bedsheets and hair gel to soap and newspapers.

“I was looking at a mandatory minimum of ten years to life and sitting in solitary confinement when I realized that they took everything from me—they took my house, they removed me from my community, from my family and took away all of my worldly possessions,” he said. “The one thing they could not take from me was my ability to create. And that’s when I was like, ‘I’m going to be an artist no matter what, whether I can make a living doing it or not.’”

Now Krimes’ art is in the collections of the Brooklyn Museum and Kadist Foundation and has been exhibited in the Palais de Tokyo, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Ford Foundation Gallery and MoMA PS1. He regularly fields requests to show his work in exhibitions focused on issues of incarceration but often finds he’s the only one in those shows who has been in prison. The distinction is important to him because having a credible, dedicated messenger is vital in the fight to end mass incarceration.

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“The thing that is very apparent to me, having worked with so many people who have been incarcerated, is that they just have a fire and drive in them,” he explained. “It’s not an issue that they will think about and work on and then move on to something else.”

Jared Owens, a conceptual artist and former Right to Return fellow who’s involved in CA&A is just the kind of person Krimes is talking about. Owens and Krimes met at a prison in North Carolina when Krimes was transferred there, and the two started up an initiative teaching their fellow inmates to make art.

When Krimes talked about what he wanted to do when he got out, it caught Owens’ attention.

“It’s kind of strange when you meet somebody who says they’re going to start a nonprofit when they’re incarcerated, and they actually do it,” Owens said, adding that he thinks Krimes’ perseverance sets him apart. “He’s one of the guys who doesn’t believe in no. It’s not obstinance—it’s just persistence for a good cause. Injustice bothers him a lot.”

Like Krimes, Owens explained how the community artists will build during retreats and residencies will be invaluable. It’s what he has with Krimes: the two critique each other’s work, and Owens describes that feedback as being “like gold.”

Ultimately, supporting artists who have been in the prison system isn’t just good for them—it’s good for everyone. “We’re doing this for society as a whole to make this place better,” Owens concluded. “Education is the key, and we’re educators.”


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