This September, Jesse Krimes, a Philadelphia-based artist and Art for Justice grantee partner, launched Voices: Safety, Justice and Community in America’s Heartland, an immersive art experience in Central Pennsylvania. The exhibit centers on the rising incarceration rates in small cities and rural counties. Jesse recently spoke with Team Spitfire about Voices and how it challenges us to boldly reimagine justice and safety.
Spitfire: Hi, Jesse. Thanks for taking the time to speak with me today about Voices. What inspired you to focus on rural incarceration in this exhibit?
Jesse: Since I came home in 2013, I’ve exhibited my work all across the country, even internationally, created a number of public art projects and attended a lot of exhibitions, all of which explored issues of justice and incarceration. Over time, I became increasingly aware that the audiences attending these shows were already largely supportive of the concepts that we were exploring. With the election of Trump and a lot of other things that have recently happened in our country, I started to reevaluate where I could be the most impactful.
That led me to try to create a project that would engage a more socially conservative audience in conversations around criminal justice reform. While major cities have seen their rates of incarceration decline, the rate at which people in small cities and rural counties are incarcerated continues to rise. And, not only are [incarceration rates in small cities and rural counties] rising, but racial disparities are also rising at an alarming rate. It is a very important conversation to begin, and artwork is the way that I’m able to create a space to catalyze these conversations.
Spitfire: Can you tell us more about the complexity of the maze itself?
Jesse: The maze is designed to be a physical metaphor for the maze of the criminal justice system, how easy it is to get trapped in it and how difficult it is to extricate yourself from it. I designed the maze specifically so that it is a straight shot into the center. [To get out,] there are seven different pathways to choose from, but only one of the seven leads to the exit. The other six come to 13 dead ends. Installed in the dead ends are personal stories that then get extrapolated into local, state, and national statistics.
Spitfire: Can you explain the stories of those involved and how they are woven into the exhibit itself?
Jesse: I hosted a series of workshops over the past two years with various community members, including local system actors, social service providers, faith leaders, formerly incarcerated people and currently incarcerated people. They all told me stories about themselves or people in their families who had either just come home from prison or are currently in prison. I collected their imagery, exploring different conceptions of safety and justice. I had them explore those concepts through a collage process. I then compiled all of their designs into quilts, which were then hand-sewn by members of the Amish community. The people who are participating in these workshops and the works they produced have expanded important conversations around criminal justice by engaging with a lot of different folks who wouldn’t otherwise be in conversation with each other.
Even the farmer who is temporarily donating his land [for the exhibition] told me that his grandson had just been arrested. The farmer also connected me to someone who helped finalize the maze’s design and helped me cut it.
During the process of creating the maze itself, we had some very honest and fruitful conversations about what the criminal justice system does, not only to people in Lancaster [Pennsylvania], but also what it does to people of color across the country.
Spitfire: What do you ultimately hope this exhibit will inspire in those who are attending? What do you want them to do when they leave?
Jesse: I’m hoping that this will be an educational opportunity for people who don’t normally engage in conversations of criminal justice reform. Through the programming that we’re planning for each Saturday, we hope to attract an audience who wouldn’t typically come to an art opening in a major city, or any city for that matter. And that when they come and encounter the corn maze, the stories, the information and the quilt, they are moved on their beliefs about the criminal justice system.
We are consciously targeting folks who are not necessarily as well-versed on this issue and hope it will help move them toward ideas about actual safety and justice that match up with what a lot of other folks in our community are already aware of and already working toward. It is important to build more grassroots support for criminal justice reform in socially conservative communities.
Spitfire: Are there any final thoughts you’d like to leave readers with?
Jesse: The one thing that I think is necessary for large-scale criminal justice reform to be successful in our country is to engage audiences that we typically do not engage with. So my hope is that this project will also serve as a model that can be scalable, that can be utilized by other artists across the country in very specific locations and have it be from the ground up, led by local artists. We need to determine how we can support them in creating something that will capture the interest of their communities and bring people into these conversations who wouldn’t necessarily come into them otherwise.
Everyone is impacted by incarceration, and everyone has a stake in reversing it. If major cities are cutting incarceration rates while rural communities are building new, bigger jails and more prisons and locking up more people with worse racial disparities, then we’re going two steps forward and one step back. I’d like for us to all be moving in the same general direction.
Spitfire: Where can people go to learn more about Voices?
Jesse: Anyone interested in learning more about Voices should visit https://artforjusticefund.org/voices/. I also encourage people to visit my personal website Jessekrimes.com and my Instagram @jesse_krimes for updates.