‘Art & Krimes by Krimes’ tells story of art as ingenuity and resistance

Feb. 16, 2023, 9:00 p.m.

Prints on soap and murals on bed sheets — meet the impressive work of formerly incarcerated artist Jesse Krimes. 

“Art & Krimes by Krimes” chronicles Krimes’ story. Krimes was incarcerated for six years, during which time he created magnificent pieces of art and befriended fellow artists impacted by the system. The film explores Krimes’ experiences of incarceration, his development as an artist and his life after being released. 

The film was screened at the Anderson Collection on Wednesday night. After the showing, Krimes conducted a Q&A alongside film director Alysa Nahmias and fellow formerly incarcerated artists Jared Owens and Gilberto Rivera. 

The movie portrays a compelling portrait of a groundbreaking artist. In an astounding show of ingenuity, Krimes used whatever he could find in the prison — soap, playing cards, styling gel — to make his pieces. He is given extensive time in the film to elaborate on his artistic process. For example, when explaining his 39-panel mural “Apokaluptein:16389067,” he notes about the materials that he “was stealing everything from the prison on purpose” to comment on the system’s exploitative nature. The mural was made on prison bed sheets, stolen from the laundry room, that Krimes mailed out piece by piece. 

Art as survival was a compelling theme in the movie. Creating helped support these artists materially, as they would use their portraits to trade for goods and connect with people. It was also a tool for spiritual survival and empowerment. Art “was the one thing they couldn’t take away from me,” Krimes said during the post-screening Q&A. 

Two pieces by Krimes, “Wolf Point” (2021) and “Pheonix” (2020), are currently on loan from Pamela and David Hornik and on display at the Anderson Collection. 

Two art pieces made of clothing side by side. The first art piece is a sofa chair next to a lamp and a wolf like figure. The second art piece is a gold chair and a black floral figure next to it.
 “Wolf Point” (left) and “Pheonix” (right) are pieces by Jesse Krimes made from the clothing of incarcerated people. These works are currently on loan from Pamela and David Hornik and on display at the Anderson Collection. (Photo: KIRSTEN METTLER/The Stanford Daily)

Despite the documentary’s heavy subject matter, it did have humanizing moments of levity. In one shot, we see Krimes, Rivera and Owens joking about their favorite artists; Krimes says, “Matisse is terrible.” In another, Owens recounts getting funny looks when buying styling gel for Krimes’ art — Owens is bald. These lighthearted moments make the film more enjoyable to watch while also helping paint real three-dimensional pictures of its subjects. 

One aspect of the film that left me wanting more was its discussion of race. Black people are incarcerated at five times the rate of whites, but this story of the system focuses on Krimes — a white man. His story was clearly valuable, but I do wonder what the repercussions are of centering a white person when discussing a system that so disproportionately impacts people of color.

At times, the film engages directly with race, such as when Krimes reflects on his sentencing. Krimes notes that the judge who sentenced him to six years gave 20 years to a Black man who committed a similar crime. Yet, serious questions still felt unanswered; for example, how may Krimes’ experiences of breaking into the art scene be different because of his race?

I also wish the documentary wrestled more directly with this label of “prison art.” During the Q&A, the artists discussed being pigeonholed as “prison artists” rather than being celebrated for their work more broadly, with Owens saying simply, “The audience is voyeuristic.” Krimes reflected on how much potential talent is wasted in the system, and questioned those who call art by incarcerated people “prison art.”

“You can call it anything you want,” Krimes said. “But that’s just art.”

This discussion was fascinating, and highlighted how representation alone is not enough for true equity and acceptance.

There is no question that the story of the film is compelling, but it is further elevated by the impressive crafting of the documentary. At the opening, direct shots of Krimes working with emphasized sounds of hammers and fabric cutting creates a deeply immersive environment. In another scene, the camera follows Krimes closely as he makes his way through Paris for an art show. Music swells under these simple shots as headlines praising his work overlay on screen. These creative choices help the audience connect intimately with Krimes and empathize with his story. 

As a note, the first half of the relied heavily on artistic graphics and generic shots of buildings, which felt a bit distanced and abstract. This was likely a logistical inevitability, as the filmmaker did not start working with Krimes until after he had been released. Still, I do wish something could have been done to make the piece feel more cohesive from start to finish. 

The social justice message of this film — that the American prison system is broken — rang loud and clear.

“We can’t keep losing generation after generation to the system,” Rivera said during the Q&A. During this same period, Krimes criticized the system’s focus on punitive measures, asking, “How do we actually create systems of support?”

“Art & Krimes by Krimes” told a fascinating and important story. While I question some of the film’s choices, the movie overall succeeded as a solid documentary — I left feeling informed, moved and inspired. 

Editor’s Note: This article is a review and includes subjective thoughts, opinions and critiques.

Kirsten Mettler '23 is an Executive Editor of The Stanford Daily. She is a former Managing Editor for Arts & Life and Desk Editor for News. Contact her at kmettler 'at' stanforddaily.com.

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