Dean Gillispie’s first art piece, which he made when was in prison, was a small, intricate house made of file folders.
“It got confiscated as soon as it got done,” he says. “I went up to the warden’s office and it’s on display up there! It was contraband for me, but it was art for them.”
Gillispie served a 20-year sentence in the United States criminal justice system for crimes he maintains he did not commit. A district magistrate released him in 2011, ruling that he did not receive a fair trial. While in prison, art became a haven for Gillispie, a way for him to maintain his sanity, and to escape the prison walls, in his mind at least. It also became a way for him to build a connection to a community. The intricate models he made from prison detritus were dependent on sympathetic suppliers across the facility: abandoned electrical components gathered by a bunkmate in the electronics shop, sawdust collected at his job in the carpentry workshop, branches from the ground maintenance teams.
One of Gillespie’s models is on view in a new exhibition that launched in a warehouse near New York City’s High Line Wednesday. The exhibit exclusively showcases work by 16 formerly incarcerated artists, created during incarceration and after release. The curators of the exhibit, called The O.G. Experience, aim to shine a light on the history of prisons in the United States, and to focus on the impact of incarceration on those both inside and outside prison walls.
“What we know to be true is that the United States is an incarcerated nation,” said co-curator Daveen Trentman. “Although collectively we’re very proximate to incarceration, there’s a pretty glaring absence of artists in the contemporary art world whose work is exhibited and whose work has the full autonomy of presenting narratives from first hand, direct experience.”
The United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. More than two million people are held by the criminal justice system. New York state alone has a 92,000 strong incarcerated population, 10,000 more than the entire prison population in the United Kingdom. And the justice system makes devastating mistakes: Gillispie’s 20 years are a small part of the 20,080 years that have been served under false convictions in the U.S. since 1989 according to the National Registry of Exonerations.
The recent catastrophe at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, which left hundreds of inmates in cells with no heat, in freezing weather, for days on end, has raised questions about the humanity afforded to New York’s citizens behind bars. That’s why this exhibit resonates.
Imprisoned in 2008, Jesse Krimes, co-curator and a former inmate, originally expected a mandatory minimum of 30 months for selling drugs. After his arrest, he refused to cooperate with police and so, he says, the amount of drugs he was accused of carrying increased, and so did his sentence.
“I was held in solitary, 23 hours a day, locked down, not allowed out of the cell, and so I was grappling with a lot of issues internally,” says Krimes.
He says he had to work out “how to handle this time, and how to handle being in this space, and maintain some kind of sense of self without succumbing to all to these pressures being applied to me.” Ultimately, he was released in 2014, having served six years.
While he served, Krimes turned to art. His piece in the show dominates a full wall of the warehouse space and is made of 39 prison bedsheets onto which he transferred images cut out of the New York Times using a spoon and hair gel. They are non-traditional art materials, but ones that were available to him in prison. “I think it captures the sense and scale and magnitude of what mass incarceration is,” says Krimes.
The piece took him three years to finish, but it would take still longer for him to see complete: he only saw the piece in its entirety after his release in 2014, having mailed out the sheets to a friend, one by one.
The exhibition also includes pieces created by former inmates transitioning back to life beyond the criminal justice system.
Upon his release, Russell Craig was unsure what to do with the pages and pages of prison documentation he was handed. “I was gonna throw them away,” he said, “But a creative voice in my head was like ‘no, you should be doing something with them.’” That thing became a self-portrait, and as the documentation kept coming, permission slips from parole authorities authorizing travel from home in Philadelphia to New York to San Francisco, Krimes, a fellow inmate, encouraged him to make something bigger.
He did, creating another self-portrait around six feet square. “I used pastel because you can see the writing coming through,” he said. “That symbolizes the stigma of being a criminal. Even though I made a decision to be an artist and not get into crime, some people still view me as a criminal.”
The exhibition will run from February 20-25 at 525 West 24th Street. It is free.