Katie Kitchen was sitting in the audience of a symposium at Anderson Ranch Arts Center back in summer of 2014. Darrell Cannon was presenting about his experience as a prisoner inside of Tamms “Supermax” Correctional Center for 20 years, 10 of which were spent in solitary confinement. To say she was moved would be an understatement.
Dark cell, no human contact, “complete sensory deprivation,” Kitchen thought. “I thought [to myself], they wanted to deprive him of every single thing that a human needs to survive, and they didn’t break his spirit,” Kitchen said. “And there he was, poetically in a way, sharing with us this life of his.”
Listening to Cannon speak, Kitchen started thinking about another man who had been locked up for 20-plus years: Joseff White, the man who killed her father.
“I began to wonder, my goodness, if this gentleman is the way he is now… He’s so reformed and he’s such a gentle soul, maybe the man who killed my father is changed as well,” Kitchen said. “And that led me to call the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to find out exactly what sort of a person Joseff Deon White was today. It became my whole quest — I wanted him to be released from prison.”
Kitchen went through a victim dialogue program under the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s Victim Services Division and subsequently met White on May 20, 2015 — not even a year following her experience at the Anderson Ranch symposium. And, after completing a rehabilitation program, White was released from prison in 2017. He now lives and works in Houston.
White’s new life exists because of Kitchen’s quest to free the man who killed her father — because Darrell Cannon was able to share his story at Anderson Ranch nearly a decade ago.
Coming full circle, on Monday, Kitchen will share her own story at Anderson Ranch, through the art center’s Critical Dialog Program, in a discussion called, “Confronting Mass Incarceration.” She is joining acclaimed artists Jesse Krimes and Russell Craig and Director of the Brooklyn Museum Anne Pasternak. The discussion will commence from 10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.
The conversation will center around the artistries, activism and personal stories of Krimes and Craig — both of whom are formerly incarcerated artists.
Krimes came to Aspen for the first time last summer for an exhibition at the New York-based Malin Gallery that featured his “Elegy Quilts,” a series of large-scale textile works handcrafted using personal clothing and other artifacts of people in prison.
Krimes’ elegy quilts are part of a much larger project. The artist is trying to handcraft two million textile pieces — one for every person who is incarcerated in the United States.
“Art is a very powerful tool to get people to see things from a different perspective and feel things on a very intimate level,” Krimes said. “Numbers and statistics often are very cold and don’t necessarily connect people in the same way.”
His newest body of works within the larger textile project — which he said are slightly smaller than the elegy quilts and incorporate more layered embroidery — are being shown alongside Craig’s new works at Malin Gallery’s Aspen location. The joint exhibition, titled “Show Me a Hero,” is on view Aug. 1 through September in the gallery space located at 501 E. Hyman Ave.
While this marks Krimes’ second consecutive summer in Aspen, the experience is a first for Craig. Like Krimes’ textiles, Craig’s paintings tell stories related to mass incarceration. He creates art as a means to explore the experience of overcriminalized communities and reassert agency after a lifetime of institutional control.
In expressing these narratives through their art, the two former inmates are opening up the frame of conversations around mass incarceration and allowing people to step into the experience — which often creates a “deeper emotional connection,” Krimes said.
“The power of artwork is that it creates this third-party medium that people can come into from their own experiences and then access, interpret and engage with the work from their very different perspectives,” Krimes said. “I think art is a much more personal way of experiencing something.”
Together Krimes and Craig co-founded Right of Return USA, a national fellowship dedicated to mentoring and supporting formerly incarcerated artists. Having recently received significant grants from the Mellon Foundation and the Art for Justice Fund, Krimes said that by the end of this year, they’ll be in a position to expand the fellowship from supporting six to seven artists annually to up to 300 artists each year. Krimes plans to speak about the Right of Return USA organization at Monday’s event.
“So many of the people who have second homes here or who stay here are very influential, both in the art world and in the world in general,” Krimes said. “And so it’s really important that the people who come see the exhibition and who come out to listen to this talk come away with a much deeper understanding and knowledge of what mass incarceration is and how it impacts communities.”
Pasternak emphasized the impact of mass incarceration on a community. The museum director said that during more than a few of her classroom visits to public elementary schools in Brooklyn, when she’s asked the group of children if they know of anyone who is in prison, “100% of the children will raise their hands,” she said.
The U.S. makes up 4% of the world’s population but represents 16% of the incarcerated population worldwide, according to Pasternak. Incarceration has increased 500% over the last four decades.
“The data tells us some very powerful things, and what we need to do in the cultural space is open hearts and minds to be able to lean into difficult conversations,” she said. “It is absolutely critical that we participate in these conversations as cultural spaces.”
Pasternak made it very clear: Culture is necessary for policy change, she said. “Without it, there is no change.” From music, theater and literature to visual art, Pasternak commented on the ways in which these cultural spaces instigate change.
“Artists have always been reflecting on the times in which they exist; they’ve always been holding up a mirror to the contradictions and the difficulties; and some of them even go further and propose new models and new ways of seeing and being that helps us construct a better society,” she said. “So without question, culture — and in this case, visual art — is critical to reform movements for mass incarceration.”
One need look no further than Kitchen’s story, which was shared in January this year in the New Yorker, to find proof of concept, Pasternak pointed out. Not only did one 2014 conversation profoundly change Kitchen’s life but also those in the family of somebody who was incarcerated, the museum director added.
The “Confronting Mass Incarceration” Critical Dialog event will take place on Monday in Schermer Meeting Hall at the ranch’s campus in Snowmass. Tickets are $275 and can be purchased at andersonranch.org.