Burning in Water is pleased to announce representation of Philadelphia artist Russell Craig. Craig, a self-taught artist, works with a variety of media, including the large-scale realistic portraits of formerly incarcerated persons for which he is best known.
Craig taught himself to draw while incarcerated for nearly a decade for a non-violent drug offense. Craig created his first drawings with a ballpoint pen that was part of his indigent kit. When he acquired a graphite pencil, he was able to build upon his foundation in line drawing, excelling at portraiture to the point where other inmates would commission portraits of their loved ones from him. He saved money from his commissions to purchase new art supplies, mastering pastel crayons, then acrylic paint. Craig notes the importance of his mentor, James Huff, in encouraging him as an artist. Huff, whom Craig met in prison, was a portraitist whose decades-long period of incarceration had begun when he was a teenager.
“It forces you to be creative when you’re in those circumstances where you have less, when you’re in prison and you have nothing. If you have that in you, that little seed of creativity, it grows.”
After his release, Craig joined The Guild, a Mural Arts Philadelphia program that provides paid apprenticeships for formerly incarcerated persons. Guild apprentices are trained in such fields as carpentry, mural painting and repair, and mosaic tiling. As they acquire specialized job skills, they also collaborate with others who have similar experiences, and learn to reconnect with their communities. Jane Golden, Mural Arts' executive director, recognized Craig as “clearly somebody who had remarkable talent.” Craig now serves as a teaching artist for the Program, working with currently incarcerated or recently released people to teach art history and painting.
He was one of the inaugural fellows for Right of Return, a program of the Open Philanthropy Foundation awarding formerly incarcerated artists $20,000 for a project addressing mass incarceration. He has also worked on Voices, a mural arts project within the Restorative Justice Program of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections that humanizes and empowers the voices of those who are or were recently jailed on criminal justice issues through creative expression.
[Craig] 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.
Among the most visually striking artworks were seven hanging, haunting canvases of Rorschach-like paintings made with ox blood and acrylic paint. Their introspective, violent gestures are dark and psychological, and embedded within these abstract forms are three pairs of eyes: Black men directly affected by mass incarceration peer out behind the violence they have been dealt since childhood. In this work, artist Russell Craig, a co-chair of the OG Experience, explores the psychological trauma of his seven-year-long incarceration.
Before the Philadelphia-based artist Russell Craig became a successful painter, he spent seven years in jail for non-violent drug crimes. Instead of throwing out all his court papers after he was released in 2013, Craig pasted these papers on canvas and used them as the basis for a self-portrait. “Art was completely necessary,” said Craig, who learned how to paint while behind bars. “It’s what got me through it. I really took to it because it was an escape.”
Russell Craig (b. 1980, Philadelphia, PA) is self-taught multimedia artist who lives and works in Philadelphia. Craig is best known for his portraits addressing political and social issues, particularly criminal justice reform and the impact of the prison industrial complex on individuals and communities.
Craig is a lead teaching artist with the Mural Arts Philadelphia’s Restorative Justice Guild program, a 2017 Right of Return fellow, and a 2018 Ford Foundation: Art for Justice fellow.
His artworks have been exhibited at the Philadelphia African American Museum as well as at the O. G. Experience in New York, for which Craig was Co-Chair.
Craig’s art has been mentioned in various publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and The Guardian.