In an Aspen exhibition, the Center for Art and Advocacy showcases work by a community of formerly incarcerated artists

The first week of August is arguably the biggest of the year for visual arts in Aspen. Collectors and curators visit from all over the world for the Intersect Aspen Art Fair and for the Aspen Art Museum’s Art Week, and it’s a prime time for downtown galleries to host their own independent events — like one packed reception and artist talk at the Simon Miccio Gallery on Aug. 3.

Every artist featured in the exhibition had spent time in prison, and a lot of them, including painter and sculptor Jared Owens, consider the impact of the criminal justice system through their work.

Owens showed pieces from his “Shadowboxing” series, which combines paint and canvas with soil from a prison yard. It explores themes about “marginalization, who’s marginalized and where they end up when they’re marginalized, [like] the carceral state, mass incarceration, the prison industrial complex,” he said in an interview at the reception.

Owens’ work has been featured in high-end galleries around the country, and he’s one of nine featured artists in the Aspen show.

All of them are part of a “Right of Return” fellowship that provides financial support and mentorship to formerly incarcerated artists.

Owens is self-taught and spent a cumulative 18 years in prison. He said the program allows him to share his lived experience with other artists who really get it.

There’s things that we know that are esoteric, that nobody else that’s an artist would really can fathom, or, you know, would ever even contemplate,” Owens said. “Because we have that thing that we’re familiar with, our backgrounds, … it definitely makes us closer, we can have conversations together that I can’t talk to civilians about.”

Community is a founding principle of the “Right of Return” fellowship and the organization it’s evolving into: The Center for Art and Advocacy, based in New York.

Artists Jesse Krimes and Russell Craig co-founded the fellowship in 2017, several years after they were each released from prison. And they take a lot of pride in the fellows they support.

“There is an urgency in their work, and it is really tapped into something that is just deeply, deeply ingrained,” Krimes said in an interview at the gallery the day before the reception. “They’re not making work about something that they just care about. It is something that they’ve lived — it is something that they live, breathe, eat and sleep every single day.”

Photographer Beverly Price (center) speaks about her work at an exhibition at the Simon Miccio Gallery in downtown Aspen on Aug. 3. Price said she wants to create “thought provoking work that can last through time,” with a focus on youth and the next generation.

Kaya Williams

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Aspen Public Radio

Photographer Beverly Price (center) speaks about her work at an exhibition at the Simon Miccio Gallery in downtown Aspen on Aug. 3. Price said she wants to create “thought provoking work that can last through time,” with a focus on youth and the next generation.

Some of the people who receive the fellowship are already established artists, and alumni have won awards like the MacArthur Genius Grant, the Pulitzer Prize and the Guggenheim Fellowship.

The fellowship also supports emerging artists who don’t have much of a network yet. But while a lot of them have technical skills and talent, Krimes said, “it was very clear that they have kind of missed the larger artistic community of support, because many of the people that we work with have lost decades to being incarcerated.”

That’s where the Center for Art and Advocacy comes in, expanding the support systems that Krimes and Craig first established with the Right of Return fellowship.

They envision an organization that provides not just guidance and financial support, like the fellowship does, but also gallery space and facilities where people can connect and expand their creative practice. A brick-and-mortar base for the center is slated to open in New York City this fall as a “springboard” into the notoriously insular art world.

“If your CV doesn’t say the right school on it, or doesn’t have the right residencies or fellowships on it, it can be very hard to break into the art world, and that’s true across all artists in general,” Krimes said. “But it is particularly true for people who, again, have just lost decades of artistic community and support around them — on top of the barriers of like finding jobs, finding housing, being restricted, being on probation and parole and also being out of the workforce for that period of time.”

For both Krimes and Craig, art has long been a mode of survival as well as one of self-expression — before, during and after they served time.

Craig grew up in foster care, and while so much changed around him, art was always there, he said in an interview at the reception.

“Art was the thing that I just used to be in my own world, to escape my reality, and then once I went to prison and that continued, it was a way I could get tunnel vision and just be in my own world,” Craig said.

In prison, Craig said art was also a source of business, and after release, a way to escape the “trap of recidivism.”

Krimes meanwhile, said art helped him maintain his own sanity, and his dignity, in a prison system that could make him feel inferior and disposable.

“It allowed me to kind of take some of these external labels of like, being a ‘criminal,’ and being not worthy of respect or dignity, and say, ‘I’m an artist,’” he said.

“Like, they could remove me from my family, they could take away all of my possessions, they could pretty much do anything they wanted to me,” Krimes added. “But the one thing that they couldn’t do was take away my ability to create.”

The artists are in fundraising mode now, and the gallery exhibition in Aspen helped spread the word with a notably influential audience.

Outside the gallery, Craig paused an interview to connect with one supporter, while a few other fellows mingled with the crowd inside, surrounded by the vibrant photos, sculptures, paintings and other artwork they had created.

Artist Russell Craig stitched together scorched, fire retardant clothes in a piece that represents his journey through the prison system. The pale dot painted in the center represents a “light at the end of the tunnel.”

Kaya Williams

/

Aspen Public Radio

Artist Russell Craig stitched together scorched, fire retardant clothes in a piece that represents his journey through the prison system. The pale dot painted in the center represents a “light at the end of the tunnel.”

In one of Craig’s pieces, meant to represent a “light at the end of the tunnel,” the artist stitched a tapestry out of scorched brown, fire retardant clothes that symbolized a “journey through hell” in the criminal justice system.

The round shape, roughly eight feet wide, was inspired by the panopticon — an 18th-century design used in some prisons — and in the center, Craig painted a small, pale-blue dot: the proverbial light.

“The perspective of the piece is like you’re going through a tunnel, going through a vortex of fire, and it symbolizes our journey through the prison system to be where we are now,” Craig said.

Here, in Aspen, Craig is feeling a lot closer to that light. He and Krimes have dreamed of this reality for a long time — but they’re not finished yet, he said.

Craig believes “there’s always room for improvement,” and, hopefully, the chance to give out money without having to fundraise for it first.

“There’s going to be a day where we’ll be ‘there,’ … and then, we’re going to be the philanthropists,” Craig said.

The exhibition at the Simon Miccio Gallery in Aspen closes this weekend. For more information on the Center for Art and Advocacy, visit centerforartandadvocacy.org

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