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He taught himself to draw in prison. Now he’s winning over the art world.

Russell Craig — former North Philly foster kid, runaway, drug dealer, and felon; current-day muralist, teacher, Ford Foundation "Art for Justice" honoree, and conceptual artist — didn't so much break into the art world as sneak in.

Russell Craig is working with a group repainting a mural in the Belgrade tunnel.
Russell Craig is working with a group repainting a mural in the Belgrade tunnel.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

Russell Craig — former North Philly foster kid, runaway, drug dealer, and felon; current-day muralist, teacher, Ford Foundation "Art for Justice" honoree, and conceptual artist — didn't so much break into the art world as sneak in.

He'd heard about Mural Arts Philadelphia's programs at Graterford state prison, where he was serving a 5-to-10-year sentence. So one day, he got a pass to go to the library but crept into the auditorium to crash a Mural Arts meeting instead — even though the punishment for being caught in an unauthorized location would be 90 days in solitary.

"But I had to take a chance," he said. "I made a plan within my mind that I was going to be an artist when I got out."

This week, Craig and Jesse Krimes — another up-and-coming Philadelphia artist who served time in federal prison for drug charges — will debut their most ambitious project ever with Mural Arts Philadelphia. Called Portraits of Justice, it's a large-scale, interactive public artwork right across from City Hall at the Municipal Services Building that incorporates visual art, a performance series, and a symposium.

It reflects a push by Mural Arts Philadelphia, along with other like-minded advocacy organizations around the country, not just to run programs for formerly incarcerated people but to elevate them to positions of real authority.

"We need to find opportunities to put people in leadership positions who have been directly impacted by the system," said Jane Golden, Mural Arts' executive director.

To that end, Craig and Krimes developed the concept for the mural, featuring portraits of young people in Mural Arts' Guild reentry program, along with an interactive component inviting participants to offer solutions to mass incarceration. They're also overseeing a performance series by fellows like the poet Reginald Dwayne Betts, and a symposium in collaboration with Philadelphia criminal justice agencies, like the DA's office and the courts.

It's a vertigo-inducing ascendancy for Craig — just five years out of prison and not quite off parole.

He has found himself straddling two worlds. One's the arena of art insiders, mingling at the Getty at an event in honor of Agnes Gund, whose Art for Justice fund gave him a $100,000 grant, and showing in New York, alongside the likes of Hank Willis Thomas and Dread Scott at the Museum of Broken Windows, a group exhibition about police violence. The other is the one he grew up in, working with young men torn between the streets and the possibility of something more. Craig's well aware that, just recently, he was in that position himself.

DHS: ‘the majority of my childhood’

Craig never met his father, and was removed from his mother's Nicetown home when he was 7, after her alcoholism turned to brutal abuse.

"Department of Human Services — that was like the majority of my childhood," he said. He kept running away from foster homes; it never seemed as if he belonged. When he went to school, he didn't pay much attention. He'd get in trouble for doodling on scrap paper: the Simpsons, Spiderman.

By 15, he was living on his own, supporting himself by dealing drugs. That seemed normal, too.

"You don't really be realizing that you're committing a crime. And running from the police, going to jail, it's all part of the game," he said. "Once I went to [state] prison, I realized there was something wrong here. How do I keep getting locked up? I've got to do something different."

After a series of short jail terms, Craig was incarcerated on felony drug charges at Graterford state prison, a maximum-security institution in Montgomery County.

In his five years there, he never saw a single visitor. There was no one to put money on his commissary account. What he did have, though, was an indigent's kit — with deodorant, toothpaste, and a ballpoint pen that he used to scratch out his first drawings.

Eventually, Craig got his hands on a No. 2 pencil, and that's when possibilities began to open up. He began to treat prison like some sort of intensive artist's residency, drawing from morning to night.

Art offered an escape, a distraction from everything happening around him.

It also provided an income, once Craig discovered an untapped art market from fellow inmates eager for pencil drawings of their loved ones.

Once he sold enough of those, he invested in pastel crayons. His commissioned pastel portraits he could make in a day and sell for $40 apiece. Fellow prisoners would put money on his commissary account or pay in cigarettes, which were as good as cash. Others would buy him art supplies instead.

"It grew to the point I had so many art supplies, I had more than you was allowed to have," Craig said. "And the guards wasn't on my back that bad because they even respected my art. … That's an example of how art is powerful."

It had limits, though.

Like the day the acrylic paints Craig ordered finally arrived and he'd gotten a library pass to peruse a how-to book. On the way back to his cell, absorbed in thoughts of what he could do with this new medium, he walked onto the wrong cellblock. That time he was disciplined for being in an unauthorized area. He spent 30 days in solitary, thinking about painting and listening to inmates' manic screams echoing around the restricted housing unit.

‘Now, we’re painting stuff that has meaning’

On a recent morning at the Feltonville Recreation Center, whose brick face has been transformed by Guild workers into a lush floral motif, a corps of young men dabbed at walls with brilliant orange paint under the gaze of Dawan Williams — another former Graterford inmate who's taken on a leadership role.

A second crew is in a classroom next door, where Craig's been teaching them about conceptual art. It's not an obvious choice for young men mostly referred by probation and parole officers. Craig tries to find projects that resonate, like work inspired by Jean-Michel Basquiat: "He came from the hood; he was young, black, poor."

Talib Stone, 21, held up a painting that he said was his first attempt since a tedious elementary school art class. "Back then, we painted stuff that had no meaning, like a balloon," he said. "Now, we're painting stuff that has meaning."

For this project, he repurposed a controversial H&M ad that featured a young black boy in a hoodie with the text "Coolest Monkey in the Jungle," creating a stark black-and-white image. "I feel like they did that because we … fight each other, kill each other, go to jail. It gives them license to do it."

Craig is new to managing a classroom — and it shows when the discussion rapidly veers off track, or when he frowns over a stack of paintings that attempted but failed to pay homage to Diego Rivera.

When all else fails, Craig takes his students to the basketball court.

"I'm trying to inspire them," he said, "not to be an artist necessarily but to think deeper."

Craig started out in the Guild himself when he came out of prison, but Mural Arts quickly put him to work on a mural high above Broad and Lehigh, not too far from where Craig grew up.

"He was clearly somebody who had remarkable talent," Golden said.

That was the foothold he needed — to begin supporting himself with his art, to connect with other artists, to find a studio and then his first gallery show. Recently, his work has been on display at the Magic Gardens and the African American Museum in Philadelphia.

Craig has been able to experiment with new media. He's created work from his own prison paperwork, and painted on a larger scale than his setup in prison would have allowed. His work is how he processes injustices in the world, and attempts to challenge them.

Of course, there are trade-offs.

“When I was in prison, I was very focused. You didn’t have distractions. … All I was thinking about was art,” he said. “Now, I try to find a way how can I get into that zone, being in the free world.”