Over the past few days you might have encountered the story of Jesse Krimes, the prisoner who created a huge mural piece during his 70-month incarceration for cocaine possession. Mr Krimes highly thought-out and deeply personal piece merges the conceptual with the tangible and the “canvas” itself becomes the place where the artist worked out what he was learning and realizing during incarceration. The piece was conceived and created out in total isolation during his prison stay, and outside the cell he taught fundamental art classes to his fellow-prisoners which helped him earn the nickname “the independent” while allowing his passion for art to break down barriers and earn respect from the other prisoners. Mr. Krimes, a trained artist who has earned a Studio Art B.A. from Millersville University in Lancaster, PA made the enormous piece out of “products of the environment”; bed sheets, colored pencils, New York Times clippings. Before reading further please take a few minutes to read the artist’s statement about the piece on his website which finds the personal and relational aspects of this work taking center stage as Mr. Krimes looks forward to contributing to helping prisoners and people on the outside understand the dehumanizing affects of the penal system and the dehumanizing nature of an image-obsessed capitalistic culture.
Entitled Apokaluptein:16389067, the artist references both the classical and contemporary definitions of apocalypse, both the disclosure of something hidden and a vision of End Times. The number in the title is the Federal Bureau of Prisons ID number that Mr. Krimes was given. The abundant printing done on the work was the result of a process wherein Mr Krimes used hair gel as a transfer medium for the images to reproduce them on the bedsheets. Looking at Apokaluptein: 16389067 one immediately notices the breaking up into horizontal thirds echoing Dante’s Divine Comedy, a light-blue sky of freedom hangs over the rest of the piece, nude figures developed by tracing ballet dancers out of the Times dance just above the ground where large figures of models strut about. The lower third is certainly evocative of a hell created by ‘unregulated capitalism’ (from Mr. Krimes artist statement), where the collaged newspaper images place models, celebrities, advertisements, and sufferers of natural disasters all co-mingle in a miasma of too-much-information, each one stripped of their personhood either voluntarily in the name of what they are trying to sell or represent or by the Times in how they are using them. The artwork explores Mr. Krimes developing thoughts as he grappled with the similarity between the loss of personality that happens in capitalistic culture and the effort towards stripping prisoners of their personalities within the prison system. The piece, which existed only in fragments that Mr. Krimes would mail home to his girlfriend was not finally constructed until he was released last September, has been shown at Philadelphia’s Little Berlin Gallery, Goldilocks Gallery, and the Defenders Association of Philadelphia. While there is no evidence that the number of incarcerated people in America will go down any time in the future, hopefully Jesse Krimes and Apokaluptein: 16389067 can help create some dialogue about the importance of art and personal expression within the penal system. Who knows? Maybe even enough people outside of the system will see this work and start believing that incarcerated individuals deserve more of a chance than they get once they are inside. One can only hope.