Jesse Krimes is an artist whose work explores societal mechanisms of power and control with a focus on criminal and racial justice. While serving a six-year prison sentence he produced and smuggled out numerous bodies of work, established prison art programs, and co-created artist collectives. After his release, he co-founded Right of Return USA, supporting formerly incarcerated artists.
2023 Culture & Narrative Fellows Our Fellows
Jesse Krimes is an artist whose work explores societal mechanisms of power and control with a focus on criminal and racial justice. While serving a six-year prison sentence, he produced and smuggled out numerous bodies of work, established prison art programs, and co-created artist collectives. After his release, he co-founded Right of Return USA, the first national fellowship dedicated to supporting formerly incarcerated artists. He also successfully led a class-action lawsuit against JPMorgan Chase for charging formerly incarcerated people predatory fees after their release from federal prison. Krimes’ work has been exhibited at MoMA PS1, Palais de Tokyo, Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the International Red Cross Museum. He was awarded fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, Pew Center, Rauschenberg Foundation, Creative Capitol, and Art for Justice Fund. His work is in the collections of the Brooklyn Museum, Kadist Foundation, Bunker Artspace, and the Agnes Gund Collection.
Medium: Visual Art
Location: Philadelphia, PA
Jesse on His Project
I am conscious of my role as a white artist making work that responds to and challenges a criminal legal system that disproportionately shatters Black and brown lives. I have an opportunity and responsibility to challenge and critique whiteness and white supremacy, while affirming the need for a multiracial movement to end mass incarceration. These artistic concerns are central to my ongoing project, the “Mass Incarceration Quilt Series.” The series will represent the national scale of incarceration through an accumulation of individuated quilt squares and larger textiles. The project focuses on rendering visible people and perspectives hidden by the criminal legal system. My ambition is that this project will grow to encompass approximately 2 million collaboratively created quilt squares to be showcased on the National Mall. The project grows out of the history of marginalized and oppressed groups using communal quilting traditions to bring awareness to social and political issues.
Creating this series entails corresponding directly with people in federal and state prison systems, incarcerated people’s family members, formerly incarcerated people, and key organizations and advocates. While the self-directed portraits depict full figure poses and background imagery that reflects incarcerated people’s conceptions of self and how they want to be viewed by society, the elegy quilts are devoid of the figure. When viewed together, the two facets of the project will remind viewers that people in prison are still a part of the community and will return to society. Depicting people in prison as their whole selves, not entirely determined by one act or moment (as portrayed in the press), pushes back against the media’s disposability politics. Simultaneously, depicting the domestic interior scenes of people in prison creates space for the viewer to see themselves reflected in the commonality of a familiar home setting.
I believe that one of the most powerful ways to challenge both white supremacy and mass incarceration is to make the full humanity of incarcerated people more visible to the public and to illuminate the human toll of racist systems.