Eight years ago, a young man sat behind bars with nothing but a number two pencil in his hand and an idea in his head.
Fast forward to today, and a towering portrait of his face hangs in an art gallery at the Truth to Power art exhibition in Philadelphia. Around the corner hang the works of Banksy and Hank Willis Thomas, but that’s not the most remarkable thing about the portrait. In fact, the painting is a self portrait of the artist, Russell Craig, who taught himself to read, write and draw while in prison.
Russell Craig recalled loving to sketch as a kid, doodling some of his favorite comic book characters for fun. But he stopped drawing when he grew up fast and started selling drugs. The drugs landed him in county and then state jail, where he went in and out for 12 years.
During his last sentence of seven years, Craig decided to pick up art again while working on getting his GED. He started by drawing pencil portraits of fellow inmates and their families for money.
“I started with a number two pencil. I just did pencil sketches, portraits of people’s families — their children and wives and mothers — and they would send it out to them,” Craig said. “I started a business, and you’re not supposed to have your own business, but I had to do it.”
Craig used the money he earned to purchase art supplies through the jail — colored pencils at first when he was in county, and then better supplies in state. He taught himself to draw with different mediums and different styles.
“Prison made me come back to art,” Craig said. “I was 90 percent art. Sometimes I’d play chess or something like that, but 90 percent of the time I wasn’t really talking to people, nothing. I was just trying to be an artist.”
A few years in, a program called Mural Arts Philadelphia came to his jail to hold an interested meeting. Craig knew he loved art and wanted to pursue it once he was out — maybe become a tattoo artist running his own parlor, he said, since he would have a hard time finding a job with a prison record. He went to the meeting. There, he got connected with people who helped him once he was out.
It was through these connections that Russell Craig’s name came up during an outreach brainstorm session for artwork to feature in Truth to Power, an exhibition in Philadelphia during the Democratic National Convention.
Truth to Power ran for just three days from July 25 to July 27, featured a vast portfolio of artwork from over 105 artists, national and local, amateur and renowned. About 35 percent of the art came from local artists like Craig.
The exhibition was timed to run during the Democratic National Convention in order to draw attention to some of its thematic focuses, which include gun violence, police brutality, women’s rights, student and national debt, LGBTQ rights and climate change.
Youth advocacy group Rock The Vote coordinated the exhibition and its extensive paneling events with two other groups, #Cut50 and The Rail Park.
“We wanted to make sure the party elevated criminal justice reform as part of its platform, so we said we’re going to go to Philly to do something at the DNC,” Deputy Director of Policy and Communications at Cut50 Alex Gudich said.
#Cut50 helped organize much of the event paneling at Truth to Power, which was studded with notable politicians, artists, and entrepreneurs. A steady stream of panelists like Sen. Cory Booker, Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes and actor Danny Glover kept radio shows and television crews abuzz inside the art space from Monday to Wednesday.
According to Rock the Vote Director of Civic Technology and Policy Jen Tolentino, the idea for the exhibition originated from the organization’s goal to encourage young people to vote.
“We are committed to empowering young people to speak their ‘truth to power’, and one of the ways young people have historically done that is through art,” Tolentino said. “We’ve seen so much passion around this election, [so] we wanted to use this as an opportunity to launch our Truth to Power campaign of 2016.”
On Tuesday morning, Craig was at the exhibition space at 990 Spring Garden. Dressed in a red t-shirt and jeans, he hovered around the space where his artwork hung — just another gallery-goer to the uninformed eye, unless you looked closely at his face and recognized it reflected in the thirty foot self portrait towering behind him.
As visitors trickled through the exhibition, Craig chatted with people in front of his painting in quiet tones, posing for pictures. His face remained mostly blank and calm, but he flashed the occasional smile — a smile that emerged again, later on, when he recalled some of the famous visitors he met yesterday.
“Celebrities have been walking all around. [One] knew about my artwork before she’d even seen it, she was told about how it was awesome and stuff like that,” he said. “I appreciated that. She gave me some good advice about how I need to work, how I needed to make more work.”
Looking ahead to the future, Craig said he plans to keep pursuing his passion for art and build up a solid portfolio.
“I want to just keep making artwork,” he said. “I have some ideas that I’m not really seeing anybody else doing, so I’m going to do it. I just gotta work — like that Rihanna song. Work, work, work, work, work.”
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