EXCLUSIVE: When you’re an artist incarcerated in a penitentiary, it’s not as if the warden will provide whatever you need to paint, like, “Grab all the pigment and palette knives you want.”
Jesse Krimes, while serving time in federal prison, not only devised a way to secretly make art using available materials like hair gel and bedsheets, but managed to sneak his artworks outside the walls. His remarkable story is told in the film Art & Krimes by Krimes, which MTV Documentary Films will release in theaters in New York and Los Angeles on September 30. Alysa Nahmias directed the film, which is expected to get a major awards push.
“Art & Krimes by Krimes is a portrait of an artist,” Nahmias wrote in a director’s statement, “but more than that, it is a distillation of my years-long dialogue with Jesse about his commitment to self-reflection, to discovering and believing in his own value as a human being in a mass-incarceration society that dehumanizes millions, and to the practice of making art.”
Krimes was in his 20s and a recent college graduate when he was arrested on cocaine possession charges and sentenced to six years in the federal pen.
“While in solitary confinement,” as The New Yorker has noted, “he discovered that he could transfer photographs from newspapers and magazines onto little soap squares using hair gel and a plastic spoon. He then embedded the portraits in holes bored through decks of cards…”
He made a 40-foot “secret masterpiece,” a mural composed on prison bedsheets. Krimes calls it “Apokaluptein: 16389067,” describing the work as “a contemporary version of Dante’s heaven, earth, and hell where politicians, celebrities, and offenders serve as archangels, angels, and demons.”
“He smuggle[d] out each panel piece-by-piece with the help of fellow artists,” a release about the documentary says, “only seeing the mural in totality upon coming home.”
Nahmias began filming with Krimes shortly after he got out of prison. At that point, she said, “[I]t was an open question whether he’d end up back in the system or not. Statistically, that is a likely outcome for anyone after prison, as the U.S. carceral system is designed to re-arrest people for any misstep, not to help them to grow and contribute on the outside.”
Nahmias continued, “I was committed to collaborating with Jesse to tell his story no matter how it ended, because it is about the power of art to expose and resist the economic and racial injustices of mass incarceration. Little did I know when we began how impactful and dramatic his journey would be. In the face of serious obstacles, Jesse’s artistic practice flourished, and his deep connections with other formerly incarcerated artists like Russell Craig, Jared Owens, and Gilberto Rivera, who are also featured in the film, led to incredible opportunities such as Jesse and Russell co-founding the Right of Return Fellowship for formerly incarcerated artists, and an acclaimed exhibition of their work, including Jesse’s masterpiece Apokaluptein 16389067, at MoMA PS1 in New York last year.”
Nahmias directed and also produced the documentary. Fellow producers are Amanda Spain, and Benjamin Murray. Sheila Nevins, head of MTV Documentary Films, executive produced the film.
“It’s very exciting to release our film at this moment when Jesse’s art – and that of the other artists in the film – is on the rise,” Nahmias said in a statement. “Jesse is unique, and there are thousands of talented incarcerated and formerly incarcerated artists whose work has profound value. I’m thrilled to be partnering with MTV Documentary Films to help introduce global audiences to their brilliance.”
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