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Documentary chronicles an unexpected side of prison life

Credit: Courtesy MTV Documentary Films

By Hanna Pham - CNN

"Apokaluptein: 16389067" is what artist Jesse Krimes dubbed his prison contraband — a project so off-limits, he had to create it behind bars in secret and smuggle it out.

The work happened piecemeal as Krimes served a six-year sentence for cocaine possession in New Jersey's FCI Fairton Federal Prison. Using hair gel and plastic spoons, he created a printing process to transfer images from clippings of The New York Times onto stolen bedsheets. He snuck the prints off-site by stashing individual sheets in the lockers of sympathetic prison guards, who would covertly mail them out.

"Even though he could get materials like canvases, he chose to use sheets because they're constructed by prison labor," said Alysa Nahmias, director of "Art & Krimes by Krimes," an MTV documentary on Krimes' journey.

The film follows Krimes' journey throughout his incarceration and his reentry into society and the art world. Credit: Courtesy MTV Documentary Films

Stitched together only after Krimes' 2014 release, 39 sheets he produced during his time in prison now make up a 30-feet-by-15-feet art installation that depicts a complex world inspired by Dante's "The Divine Comedy," with multilayered depictions of naked bodies dancing in the air and tiered newspaper clippings superimposed over gray landscapes. As the work's title suggests — "Apokaluptein" is Greek for "uncover" and the origin of the word "apocalypse," and 16389067 is Krimes's Federal Bureau of Prisons identification number — it's a piece deeply grounded in the artist's prison experience and the personal reckoning with racial inequality, particularly in the justice system, he says he underwent there.

"It was really striking to me...when I went into the prison system, just how many Black and brown people I came across you know, very similar stories to mine, very similar criminal backgrounds and who ended up getting, in some cases decade longer sentences," he said. "Seeing that inside the prison walls really kind of radicalized me."

Krimes said he agreed to do the documentary to help change the narrative about people who've been incarcerated.

"Because I think so often, or at least for a very long time, every single depiction of people in prison through popular culture and media has been negative," he said.

Art in oppression

"Art & Krimes by Krimes," incorporates several animated sequences while following the artist from his early days growing up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, to his success after leaving prison.

"I wanted to be able to have people see what it's like in his mind, being an artist and the way that intersected with the conditions in prison and the oppression there," Nahimas said.

Krimes said he has felt those disparities acutely. "I was often the only White person, and the only formerly incarcerated artist included in a lot of exhibitions across the country that were touching on themes of mass incarceration," he said. "I know the kind of brilliance and incredible creativity that a lot of my friends who are Black are creating ... behind prison walls."

The stories and voices of a few of Krimes' friends and fellow former inmates, including Craig Robertson, Gilberto Rivera and Jared "O" Owens, also feature in documentary, illustrating the difficult paths of people with criminal records who aspire to be successful artists — and their triumphs, too.

Since his release, Krimes has created more than a hundred artworks and shown in 28 exhibitions. He's received fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation and the Art for Justice Fund, among others. And, along with his friend artist Russell Craig, he cofounded the Right of Return fellowship, a national program that supports and mentors formerly incarcerated artists with funding from the Mellon foundation.

"Art & Krimes by Krimes" is now streaming on Paramount+.

The documentary opens with an animation of Krimes as a kid creating cardboard sculptures in his grandfather's shop, right below the apartment where the artist was raised by his mom. His lifelong love of transforming materials sparked a desire to go to art school. But shortly after graduating from Millersville University with a bachelor's degree in studio art, Krimes was arrested on drug charges and sent to prison at the age of 24.

"Going in there I was terrified. I walked into the cafeteria...everyone was segregated. Within the first couple weeks there was a huge war that almost jumped off between the Whites and the Blacks. The guys handed me shanks; I took them but I threw them away...there was no way I was going to stab somebody, that would've given me a life sentence," Krimes said in the documentary.

The film traces Krimes' journey throughout his incarceration — improving his drawing skills by constantly sketching, collaborating with other incarcerated artists, and secretly mailing out his art — and his reentry into society and the art world. Right after his release, Krimes got a job with the restorative justice program in Philadelphia, creating murals in his spare time, and he negotiated with his parole officer to get permission to exhibit in Paris.

Nahmias' goal was not only to overturn negative stereotypes of incarcerated people, but also question the racial disparities and discrimination that artists face based on the color of their skin both inside and outside of prison and in the art world.