Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: This is The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry.
Russell Craig: There's a lot of things that incarcerated individuals do inside. Art was all I did every day. For me, I was in my own world.
Melissa: That's artist Russell Craig. Last year, he joined me here on The Takeaway to discuss the radical connections between art and incarceration. As a formerly incarcerated artist, these connections are central to Craig's work. Back in 2017, he and another formerly incarcerated artist Jesse Krimes established the Right of Return Fellowship. It's the first and only national initiative dedicated to supporting and mentoring formerly incarcerated creatives.
Each year, Right of Return awards, $20,000 each to six fellows working at the intersections of art and system reform. This month, Right of Return announced their new cohort of 2023 fellows. I sat down with co-founder Jesse Krimes and 2023 fellow Jaiquan Fayson. Jaiquan, I'm going to start with you. What is the value of art in the context of incarceration?
Jaiquan: In my experience, it's been a huge value therapeutically. It's been very valuable therapeutically as far as helping me to maintain some sort of mental faculties. During my incarceration-- I was speaking with someone maybe yesterday, I believe, and I mentioned just the idea of-- most artists know when you get into a certain mode when you're working, it's almost like reading a book. You're reading a book, and you're so engrossed in a book. Everything around you, all of the sounds, all of the sights, everything else becomes totally irrelevant.
You're thinking about what's going on in that book. You're so much more inside of your own head while you're reading that book that the world around you disappears. It had a very similar effect on me. While I was incarcerated, at some point I found myself in solitary confinement. I had legal paths there, and being able to draw consumed a lot of my time there and took my focus off of all of the depression, the fact that I had to deal with being alone in there, and the fact that I had to deal with being incarcerated in general.
Melissa: Jesse, you want to weigh in on this as well?
Jesse: Very similar to Jaiquan, art had served those same purposes for me while incarcerated, also in solitary confinement. I would say to shift the focus a little bit is I think that the importance of the work and how it exists in the world is actually very important because I think that it helps to catalyze conversations that as a society we often try to ignore.
While the work serves as this medium that can maintain your sanity and can maintain a positive sense of identity in a system that is literally designed to dehumanize you and destroy you, is really embedded in the work. I think that putting that work out into the world has helped, again, catalyze these conversations and added a whole new cultural narrative to the movement to end mass incarceration.
Melissa: Jaiquan and Jesse, I so appreciate that because I feel like you've brought us both a reflection around the work that art is doing for the incarcerated artists, but also simply the value of art. It does seem maybe even odd to start there, but sometimes I feel like we're having to make an argument that art matters at all anywhere.
Jesse: I find myself having to make that argument a lot. [chuckles] When we think about that, and when we're thinking about creating policies to advance change, whether that's legislative or policy initiatives, often we also have to think about the cultural narrative and how we connect with audiences because ultimately the things that make policies advance and make people move are the cultural narratives that we surround ourselves with and the things that we deem to be valuable and the things that we no longer consider to be okay.
For me, it's always a dual strategy of changing that narrative of actually putting out information in a very human way that people can connect with and engage with. It really lays the groundwork for policy initiatives to actually take hold.
Melissa: Going to take a quick break, but we'll be back with more from Jesse and Jaiquan in just a moment. It's The takeaway. This is The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. We're talking with Jesse Krimes co-founder of Right to Return, a non-profit organization that provides $20,000 fellowships each year to six artists who are formerly incarcerated. Jaiquan Fayson is part of the 2023 class of fellows.
He's a visual artist who works in multiple media but has a special affinity toward oil painting and for representing human experiences through human faces, figures, and hands. Jaiquan, you talked about what art was doing in terms of anchoring you, getting you into that space of flow as you created, but I'm also interested in the sources of your inspiration, especially in a context like solitary confinement. Where did your art come from?
Jaiquan: Unfortunately, I've recently discovered that I have a condition called aphantasia, where I can't actually see. I don't have a visual of my imagination. The vast majority of my art has been from seeing things, from consuming whatever's around me if there are images around me, if there's people, if there's pictures. During my incarceration, while I was in solitary confinement, they did allow me to have two magazines. A library cart comes around and they have a small set of books and magazines. Each week I would rotate whatever magazines were there, and I would draw every person.
I would try to draw their hands. I started with hands because for some reason I just gravitated towards hands. Maybe it's because I was looking at my own hands so often while I'm drawing. That was my inspiration, was just drawing people and I think also because I didn't see people. I was in solitary confinement at the time. I wanted to reason with myself that maybe I shouldn't-- There's a lot of guilt there. Maybe I shouldn't have been around people and that's why I was in solitary confinement.
Maybe that punishment was necessary and as a child, there was a lot of guilt there. By drawing those people, honestly, it was a way of me feeling like I had some people there. I had some other face. I could see a face. I had a magazine there with a face in it. It was another person's face. Nothing can prepare you for not seeing a person's face for that long.
Melissa: Jesse, talk to me about how Right of Return began.
Jesse: Both myself and Russell Craig had come home from prison around the same time. We partnered with the Soze Agency and I helped to co-curate an exhibition around the Democratic National Convention in 2016.
Melissa: I remember it so well. It's the first place I saw Russell Craig's work, that incredible self-portrait.
Jesse: Yes, a stunning piece. I think it was the first time a lot of people have seen his work. In fact, there was a funder in the audience that day and a question had been asked something along the lines of like, "Are we the only formerly incarcerated artists?" I basically explained that we are not the exception to the norm, that this is actually the norm.
That really kicked off a conversation around how we can build something that will support other formerly incarcerated artists and actually provide them with access that is often denied. When you think about people who are incarcerated, oftentimes they've spent decades of their lives without an artistic community, without access to all the other things and fluencies that people gain over that period of time. While there are incredible artists all over the country, the access to those artists is often very limited.
That was the genesis of Right of Return, which we co-founded in 2017. To date, we've supported, I believe it's 31 artists, some of whom are the most visible artists in the country now. They've gone on to get MacArthur genius awards, Pulitzers, and Guggenheim grants. It's just been incredibly powerful to see all of these amazing artists, with a little bit of support that we were able to offer through Right of Return, just really excelling in the world and getting their work into the world and really catalyzing these conversations.
Melissa: Jaiquan, what did it mean to you to learn that you've been named a Right of Return Fellow?
Jaiquan: Recently, I've been employed as a substitute art teacher, which is something that's been very important to me. When I think back, initially, I set out to be a full-time artist. I genuinely have a deep, deep love for being a teaching artist, but I set out to be an artist. I was also aware of the Soze Agency and the past fellows for some time, but it took me some time to think that it was possible that I could achieve, that I could win, that I could be there.
I doubted myself for some time because of some of the things that Jesse just mentioned. For years of my life, I didn't realize that I could potentially be an artist, I could be a full-time working living artist. I always figured I had to find a way to supplement. This was something big. This was something not just as inspirational to me, for the people around me, there's still people in my neighborhood who may have an ability to draw or may have a vision for art, but they just see it as a hobby because they don't know that it's available and they may have been incarcerated.
If I'm here and I'm able to let people know that this is something that I'm able to achieve as well. It's been huge. A lot of it I'm trying to keep inside to myself, but it's huge. It's massive to me. It's life-changing to me. I think back to when I was accepted into college, I was rejected initially because of my past, because of my criminal history. When I finally did get accepted, that was life-changing. This is another moment to me that this is another focal point in my life that's life-changing.
Melissa: Jaiquan, thank you so much for taking the time with us. Jesse, thank you so much for taking the time with us today on The Takeaway.
Jesse: Thank you so much for having us. This is lovely.
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