The country’s first artist-in-residence program at a district attorney’s office engages voices from the spectrum of criminal justice, visually expressing their shared humanity as part of building a pathway to reform.
Through an Activating Art and Advocacy grant from Art for Justice, Mural Arts Philadelphia and Fair and Just Prosecution approached the Philadelphia district attorney’s office to establish an artist in residence program. Contemporary artist James “Yaya” Hough was selected to serve this pioneering role.
The Philadelphia district attorney’s office, under the leadership of Larry Krasner, already had a reputation for being dedicated to finding new ways to approach criminal justice reform in the United States, which he calls “arguably the most important civil rights movement of our time.”
That’s why it made perfect sense to him to establish the country’s first artist-in-residence program at a district attorney’s office in late 2019. “[Artists] have this incredible capacity to communicate,” Larry says. “We’re talking about a movement for criminal justice reform … and I don’t know how you do a movement without the art that surrounds it.”
With an interest in art since childhood, James has a 20-year history with criminal justice issues, art, and activism, having participated in the Mural Arts’ Restorative Justice project during his long incarceration. He was chosen as the artist in residence not long after his release, having shown not only his talent but also his compassion and wisdom to those involved in the program.
“The project is the culmination of 20 years of work in this area of criminal justice,” says Jane Golden, executive director of Mural Arts Philadelphia. “We have done work in prisons with people coming home. We have worked with crime victims, victims’ advocates and incarcerated people. We have found that art-making has a particular power to engage people, to both shine a light on our distinctions and underscore a commonality.”
“I believe we look at each other and don’t really see each other…so I want people to look at the eyes of these portraits and really see themselves reflected back. I want them to become almost like mirrors. … I think if we see each other as ourselves, that’s a form of justice.”
For his artist-in-residency project, entitled Points of Connection, James’ goal was to bring together the lived experiences of people in Philadelphia who have been justice-impacted: staff in the prosecutor’s office and the district attorney’s office, incarcerated people and those who have been released. Before creating any portraits, James not only conducted interviews with people that have differing experiences with criminal justice but also had them interview each other. The primary question James asked was, “What is justice?”
“I wanted to center them in such a way that it would … make their lives the bridge to get us closer as a city, as a society, and give us pathways … towards a better outcome in a criminal justice system for the citizens,” James says.
As Jane points out, what people have to say in response has real power, because they have all been so deeply impacted by how our society answers the question, “What is justice”?
“Through that process, much was learned,” James says. “Visually, people see my portraits … the images of the people that were interviewed from these three groups. But I think Points of Connection as a residency will really be remembered for the engagement, the interviews and the bonds – the connections that were made that keep going outside of or beyond the residency’s defined intent.”
It’s vitally important to James that people see themselves in the eyes of the portrait subjects. “I believe we look at each other and don’t really see each other,” he says. “So I want people to look at the eyes of these portraits and really see themselves reflected back. I want them to become almost like mirrors. … I think if we see each other as ourselves, that’s a form of justice.”
When viewers see the portraits, which are masterfully rendered, the subjects’ eyes are a focal point. The majority look directly at the viewer, expressing what James learned from each one. Subjects include Juvenile Unit Prosecutor Ebony Wortham, First Assistant District Attorney Carolyn Temin, formerly incarcerated returning citizen Darnell “Nell” Drinks, and a tireless advocate against violence and crime since his son was murdered, Stanley Crawford.
James is also working on a series of videos from the interviews he conducted which, like his portraits, will be on display in public spaces throughout Philadelphia, including the district attorney’s office.
The partners in the project hope it will be replicated elsewhere, because they all recognize the need for criminal justice reform and the unique ability of art to influence the way people see the world.
“Art and artists for any movement become some of its most effective communicators,” Larry says. “They’re able to see things that are universal, and they grab people and inspire them.”