Two Philly artists win prestigious national grants for finding humanity behind bars

Painter Michelle Angela Ortiz in her South Philly home, among nine artists nationwide awarded fellowships by the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation.

Two Philly artists were recently awarded the prestigious Robert Rauschenberg Foundation Fellowship, a two-year grant designed to support an ongoing project about mass incarceration in America.

South Philly native Michelle Angela Ortiz and Brewerytown resident Jesse Krimes were among nine artists from around the country honored by the foundation, which was created in 1990 by the late pop-art pioneer Robert Rauschenberg.

“Michelle Ortiz and Jesse Krimes each address very different aspects of the issue” of mass incarceration, said Risë Wilson, the foundation’s director of philanthropy.

Ortiz focuses on mass detentions of immigrants, “a population that has no constitutional protections,” Wilson said. Krimes, a Lancaster native who has been imprisoned twice on nonviolent felony drug convictions, works with current and former inmates at Graterford Prison to create works that shed light on their lives as prisoners and on the racial and class disparities in American prisons.

Wilson concedes that social-justice activism isn’t the first idea that strikes you when you see Rauschenberg’s paintings, which played with pop-culture iconography. “But Robert Rauschenberg was an incredibly generous person who used his platform as an artist to bring attention to issues that were important at the time, including HIV/AIDS and the environment.”

Sharing immigrant stories

Camera icon Steve Weinik photo
Michelle Angela Ortiz’s work “We Are Human Beings,” installed outside the Immigration and Customs Enforcement building at 16th and Callowhill Streets. Steve Weinik 

Ortiz, 38, a first-generation American born to a father from Puerto Rico and a mother from Colombia, grew up a block away from the Italian Market. Today, she lives “just down the street” from her parents with her husband, Dolio Durant — a software developer and a singer with bluegrass-hip-hop fusion band Gangstagrass — and their 3-year-old son.

“I’m interested in narratives, in presenting stories, whether it’s the story of myself as a child of immigrants or the stories of different individuals and communities,” she said. “Most recently, I’ve been working on the theme of mass immigrant deportation.”

One of her recent works is a giant installation in front of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement building at 16th and Callowhill Streets. It spells out in yellow block capital characters the message: “We are human beings, risking our lives, for our families & our future.”

While it’s a temporary installation, Ortiz said, it serves to claim that public space “for the … voices of people who are often unheard and invisible.”

Ortiz tailors her installations to specific locales around the country and across the globe. For the last eight years, she has worked with American Embassies as a U.S. cultural envoy, collaborating with communities from Fiji, Mexico, Cuba, and Argentina.

“Wherever I go, I try to show how art can get to the core issues people care about,” she said, “and of presenting issues in a way that people can really connect.”

Art by convicts

Camera icon Artist Jesse Krimes in his studio. (MARGO REED / Staff Photographer )
Artist Jesse Krimes in his studio. MARGO REED / Staff Photographer

Jesse Krimes, 34, has already served a total of nearly seven years on two felony convictions. “They were for nonviolent drug offenses,” said the painter and muralist, “though I question the whole distinction between violent and nonviolent offenders.”

“I served some time in a maximum-security prison among so-called violent offenders, and there I was surrounded by normal people, regular people,” he said. “If you spend time with them, you realize they deserve respect as human beings.”

Released from prison more than two years ago, Krimes returns regularly to work with inmates on a mural project that earned him the Rauschenberg fellowship.

“The thematic idea behind the project is that they make a visual piece of artwork that represents their concerns about mass incarceration,” he said. “Eventually, I will work the individual pieces into a mural. But we also plan to have a group show of the individual works.”

Camera icon Jessse Krimes
Concept for a mural consisting of pieces of art created by current and former prison inmates, mocked up as a painting by Jesse Krimes as part of his continuing “Voices” project.

A different Krimes mural already on display in Philadelphia incorporates some of the inmates’ art. Made in partnership with Philadelphia Mural Arts, it faces the State Department of Corrections Community Corrections Center on 15th Street in North Philly.

Krimes said he planned to use the Rauschenberg grant to create a show around the prisoners’ artworks, to be unveiled somewhere in rural Pennsylvania. “Most people consider prisons to be an urban issue. It’s not,” he said.  “I want to appeal to a more rural audience and a more conservative audience and to start a real conversation about these issues.”

For instance, he said, “many people don’t know that Pennsylvania is one of a very few states left where a life sentence really means life. Parole eligibility exists in other states. Not here.”

Krimes hopes his conservative audience will be moved by convicts’ stories. “For example, how would they feel about a man who committed a violent crime at 18, and now he is 50? He’s a totally different man, a mature man. But he will never get out.”

How would they feel, Krimes wonders, if they were somehow forced to look upon these convicts not as monsters but as fellow human beings?