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'Sistine Chapel of Prison Art' crafted by jailed artist to be displayed at Eastern State

Jesse Krimes secretly created a heaven-and-hell mural on prison bedsheets and smuggled his art to his girlfriend in Philly

Jesse Krimes, artist created a 39-panel mural out of bedsheets during his incarceration in the federal system. Photograph of Krimes with miniature model of the installation he will display at Eastern State Penitentiary. (ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer )
Jesse Krimes, artist created a 39-panel mural out of bedsheets during his incarceration in the federal system. Photograph of Krimes with miniature model of the installation he will display at Eastern State Penitentiary. (ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer )Read more

JESSE KRIMES, an artist from Lancaster County, was sentenced in 2009 to five years in federal prison for possession of powdered cocaine with intent to distribute.

His new neighbors were the Aryan Brotherhood, the Mexican Mafia and other prison gangs.

"I thought to myself, 'Where the hell am I?' " said Krimes, 32, a free man since last year, sitting in his Spring Garden studio in Olivet Covenant Church's former Sunday school.

"I asked myself, 'How am I going to survive?' "

He survived for a year at the Federal Correctional Complex in Butner, N.C., by drawing portraits of gang members, who sent them home to their loved ones.

"You can't have friendships with any one gang in prison," Krimes said. "But you can do business with all of them. I showed them respect. I connected with them as human beings."

Transferred to another federal prison in Fairton, N.J., he survived psychologically by performing a secret, high-risk act of defiance and rebellion.

Krimes cut up prison bedsheets, stolen for him by a friend in the laundry. Then he cut pictures out of the New York Times and the Lancaster Intelligencer - a surreal mix of offenders' mug shots and fashion photos of models in clothing ads.

Using hair gel, he transferred the images onto the paper-thin prison sheets, creating 39 panels of heavenly and hellish collages.

With the help of guards and trustees he'd befriended, Krimes smuggled the sheets out, piece by piece, to his Philadelphia girlfriend.

In May, Krimes will cover the walls of a cell at Eastern State Penitentiary in Fairmount with a digital reproduction of his 39-sheet, 30-foot-wide by 15-foot-high mural. He calls it "Apokaluptein: 16389067" ("Apocalypse" followed by his inmate identification number).

When his vision of inmates' tortured souls and heaven's nude female angels with the cut-out heads of criminal offenders was exhibited at Rutgers University's Zimmerli Art Museum last year, a reviewer called it the Sistine Chapel of prison art.

Krimes' anguished artistic journey began early. "My mother had me when she was 16," he said. "I never met my biological father. I thought the guy she was seeing was my father. When I was 13, he killed himself.

"I didn't know how to handle it," Krimes said. "That's when I started getting into trouble."

He felt excluded and estranged from ordinary family life. "Whenever I'd go to a friend's house, I saw two parents and they'd make dinner," Krimes said. "We didn't even have a kitchen.

"We lived in a garage, above my grandfather's machine shop," he said. "So I always had this sense of 'otherness,' of being an outsider, which is really what all my work is about."

Krimes said he turned to "very low-level drug dealing," which gave him "the nicest car and the prettiest girl and a false sense of self-worth."

He was arrested at 18, spent a year and a half in state prison, then went to art college, graduated, and was arrested again at 26 in 2009, caught with 145 grams of powdered cocaine.

A county official called Krimes a "drug kingpin."

"That's ridiculous," Krimes said. "There's no drug kingpin in Lancaster."

Krimes has been wrestling - sometimes shockingly - with the effect of incarceration on living things since his art-student days at Millersville University in Lancaster County, where his "jailing" of a live betta (Siamese fighting) fish disturbed his classmates.

Krimes attached a clear Plexiglas container, only half an inch wide, to the window of a stairwell door. The window was reinforced with wire safety mesh, which gave Krimes' container the look of a jail cell.

He filled the container with water, creating an extremely narrow prison for the fish.

"I fed the fish and changed the water regularly," Krimes said, "but somebody liberated it. They said I had to respect the right of every living thing to survive."

Krimes believes the imprisoned betta fish inspired outrage because "it was considered beautiful and therefore its life was considered valuable."

To prove his point, he constructed a false floor just above the real floor in the university's atrium. Then he built a Plexiglas box in one corner of the floor and populated it with live cockroaches.

"If you care about every living creature's right to survive," he argued, "liberate the cockroaches." No one did.

"That's because cockroaches are 'the other,' the outsiders," Krimes said. "They're not beautiful, so they have no value."

Shortly after his college graduation, Krimes felt like one of those cockroaches.

When he was arrested, Krimes said, the feds tried to pressure him to give up his drug supplier by sending him to a violent-offenders unit where he was confined to his cell 23 hours a day.

Krimes, a nonviolent offender, had a lot of time to think about a secret act of rebellion that would save his sanity. "I wanted to use the materials of the prison against it," he said.

Krimes collected prison playing cards and bars of soap. He broke off the positive terminal of a AAA battery, removed the metallic rod inside, sharpened it on the floor of his cell and made a handle by wrapping one end in a deodorant label, creating a tiny knife.

Krimes painstakingly cut out the faces of the kings, queens and jacks on 6,000 prison playing cards. It was slow, mind-numbing work. "It was meditative," he said.

He then glued stacks of 21 cut cards together, lining up the head holes in each stack, to make a frame for a very different face.

He carved thin slivers out of prison soap bars and inserted them into the cards' holes. He wet the soap slivers and pressed newspaper mug shots of criminal offenders onto them, giving the cards offenders' faces.

"Soap is cleansing, purifying," Krimes said. "By putting offenders' faces on the soaps, I was disrupting the simple prison narrative of good and bad."

An inmate trustee who empathized with the artist's rebellion mailed the offender-faced cards to one of Krimes' friends, bypassing a prison inspector who would have stopped them from reaching the outside world.

Krimes lives in that world now, having moved to Philadelphia after his March 2014 release to be with his girlfriend here, removed from Lancaster County and the sketchy life he once led there.

His art continues to be informed by his strong feelings about beauty and "otherness," and about the despair of imprisonment.

He has built a bond with his young son, who was born during Krimes' first year in federal prison.

Krimes is a free man now, and determined to remain one for the rest of his life.