A self-described introvert, Jesse Krimes found his own way of navigating life while incarcerated.
While serving a prison sentence in North Carolina for drug-related charges brought in Lancaster County, Krimes used his artwork as a way to win friends and occupy his time in a positive way. Other prisoners would spot him sketching and ask him to draw portraits of their family members for birthdays. Some even wanted lessons so they could try drawing themselves.
“I recognized the kind of power that creating artwork had in terms of crossing all of these divisions that are inside of prison, and even creating within helped to humanize me to staff and other folks who were incarcerated,” says Krimes, a Lancaster native.
That impact translated to his life outside prison when he was released in 2013.
“It served as an equally powerful tool to display at exhibitions and events and create public artworks, to facilitate these connections and conversations,” Krimes says.
Krimes first used his art to speak on mass incarceration in 2014, when he showed “Apokaluptein: 16389067,” a massive work he made while incarcerated. He made it by transferring newspaper images onto prison bed sheets with hair gel and a spoon and mailing the work piecemeal to his girlfriend for safekeeping.
His latest exhibit expands his mission to create meaningful conversation around criminal justice reform.
“Voices from the Heartland: Incarceration in Small and Rural America” features a corn maze designed by Krimes at Cherry Crest Adventure Farm in Ronks and quilts made in collaboration by incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals with the help of Amish and Mennonite quilters.
The maze’s twists and turns serve to highlight the inescapable nature of the American justice system. The exhibit is open every Saturday in September.
Krimes has teamed up with the Vera Institute of Justice, a New York-based nonprofit advocating from criminal justice reform, for a day of programming at the exhibit, “Maze of Injustice: Incarceration in Small and Rural America,” on Sept. 21. Piper Kerman, author of “Orange is the New Black,” the book that is the inspiration for the Netflix series, and Brandon Flood, secretary of Pennsylvania’s State Board of Pardons, are among the panelists and speakers. A performance by country singer Terri Clark will end the day.
On Sept. 28, the exhibit will be accompanied by a simulation showing the challenges former inmates face when re-entering society. There also will be a performance by country musician Kristian Bush of Sugarland.
Getting off track
As Krimes approached his graduation from Millersville University, he started to feel like he might actually be able to make a living out of his passion for art. A bike rack he designed was installed outside Central Market in 2007, according to newspaper records. A few months after the dedication of the rack, though, he was arrested for possessing a small amount of cocaine and public drunkenness, and the bike rack was removed.
Shortly after graduating from Millersville in 2008, Krimes was indicted after being caught with $15,000 worth of cocaine, a scale, packaging material, a loaded handgun and ammunition. He was characterized by the Lancaster County Drug Task Force as an upper-level drug dealer who distributed to different parts of the county.
Krimes went to the Federal Correctional Institution in Butner, North Carolina, to serve his sentence. He spent his first year there in solitary confinement.
“They have taken everything from me,” Krimes says. “I had no access to my family, my clothes, anything that I’ve owned, any material possessions, and they removed me from everything that could possibly be an identifier of what makes me who I am. The only thing that I was really left with was ‘I’m an artist.’ I can create, and I can create no matter what.”
Krimes has served nearly seven years incarcerated on the two felony convictions.
Making a maze
After his release, Krimes was determined to continue pursuing art while also creating a conversation about criminal justice reform.
Krimes, now based in Philadelphia, has hosted art events in major cities. He started thinking about how to expand the conversation to rural communities. He says on visits home, he was moved by how many people he spoke with that were affected by incarceration, too. But he felt like there wasn’t as much attention being paid to the topic in those more rural areas.
“It was important for me to come back and have this conversation where I’m from, where I have a history, and try to repair any harm I’ve caused, but also open up the space for others to come into this conversation,” Krimes says.
Jasmine Heiss of the Vera Institute says that while mass incarceration is often thought of as a metropolitan issue, most of America’s big cities have dramatically reduced their use of prison and jail. Rather, she says it’s rural communities and small cities surrounded by rural areas where mass incarceration is rising.
“In Lancaster, that is certainly true with the level of prison admissions,” Heiss says. “The jail population has been dramatically reduced, but is still sort of marked by deep racial disparities. There’s no way to deny that this community is also close to this issue and that it’s deeply impacted by it.”
The corn maze at the center of “Voices of the Heartland” first leads visitors straight to its center, where they’re met by a red, 6-by-9-foot prison cell. From there, there are seven paths to choose from to exit. Only one will get you out. Each of the 13 dead ends have a sign with personal stories from Pennsylvanians affected by mass incarceration, as well as statistics that give the stories wider context.
“If you don’t know where you’re going, it is very difficult to get out and very easy to get lost in there,” Krimes says. “But at the same time, it’s designed to be that very physical and literal metaphor for how difficult it is to navigate the criminal justice system.”
Once they exit the maze, attendees may enter a 40-by-80-foot barn where the quilts are displayed. One 62-foot quilt was made by Krimes himself, and includes historic Lancaster imagery like the old jail and courthouse and the new jail. A timeline below the quilt traces the history from slavery to mass incarceration in the present day.
At Saturday’s “Maze of Injustice” event, Heiss will moderate a conversation with LNP reporter Jeff Hawkes and Joshua Vaughn of the Appeal. From there, attendees may participate in the Vera Institute’s “Don't Jail Me” experience. Krimes will then give an artist talk, followed by a panel about women in the justice system featuring Kerman. Flood and Mark Wilson, director of Lancaster County Adult Probation and Parole, will speak. The day will end with the concert by Clark.
While mass incarceration is a subject too complicated and nuanced to effectively tackle in a day, there are a few key elements Heiss hopes to hit during the programming, including the racial disparities in the prison system, the rising population of women in jail and the role local prisons play in mass incarceration.
Heiss spends most of her time analyzing incarceration data and looking at jail rosters. But, she says, art has a different impact on these conversations.
“There’s just something so powerful about the way that art and stories in a human indignity-centered conversation can move people … watching people move through the exhibition space, move through ‘Voices from the Heartland,’ it really resonates. It sort of lands with people on a much deeper level,” Heiss says.
Art of transformation
“Voices from the Heartland” is the latest way Krimes explores the power of image transferring in his art, this time through images on quilts. It’s a technique dating back to the prison sheets, which he’s used in other exhibits since. For him, it’s representative of the transformative nature of individuals.
He sees the transfer process as creating three new images from one: first, the printed image, then, the inverse made from transferring, and finally, the remainder image that is now on the altered original. One thing can exist in more than one way at once, he says — it’s all about perception.
“For me, this is particularly interesting because when you’re incarcerated or arrested, there’s a way that we tend to boil down our perspective of the individual as just a singular thing from this singular decision of this thing they have been accused of or convicted of,” Krimes says. “So, it ignores this whole other existence that this person has. They’re also a son. They’re also a father. They’re also loving and caring. For me, the image transfer helps to complicate how we see, because nothing is ever just as straightforward as it appears.”