Russell Craig spends most of his days in a large church situated between the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Eastern State Penitentiary. Craig is an artist in residence at The Church Studios, a creative space housed inside Olivet Covenant Church that serves as home base for a number of talented artists working in Philadelphia.
When I arrive to speak with Craig about his life and work, he is mid conversation with two other artists and is surrounded by large, freshly painted mural panels laid out on the floor.
Craig was born in North Philly, not too far from where he now makes a living, although for him it’s difficult to point to one place as the home where he grew up. He remembers being put in his first foster home when he was about five years old, and spent the rest of his childhood bouncing around from one foster home or group home to another before he could ever put down roots. Craig recalls some of the situations he was placed in being worse than the one he was taken from, telling me, “I was never really abused but it wasn’t ever like a family to me, so eventually I wanted to get away from it.”
In addition to dealing with new housing situations, Craig also had to deal with frequently changing schools, making it virtually impossible to establish any sort of network of friendship or social support. It was during his childhood that he first took an interest in sketching. Even if he wasn’t dreaming of being a professional artist as a kid, Craig tells me that art was a rare constant — something he could count on when he couldn’t count on much else.
After a coming of age period that was spent on and off the streets, with no real financial support, Craig was incarcerated for non-violent drug charges. It was during his time in prison that he found himself going back to art with a different purpose. He worked on his technical abilities and cultivated the mindset that he was going to dedicate his life to art, whatever it took.
It was also during this period that he first became connected to Mural Arts Philadelphia, an organization he remains involved with as an assistant artist to this day. Craig is an alumni of their Guild program — a paid apprenticeship for formerly incarcerated individuals and people on probation that offers a chance to work on creative projects, like murals and mosaics, in Philadelphia.
By 2016, Craig had turned enough heads in the local art scene to land a spot on the Truth To Power lineup, a high-profile art exhibition that coincided with the Democratic National Convention held in Philadelphia. The work that was on display was a self-portrait that Craig composed on a giant four-piece canvas made up of his old court papers, with the four sections joining to pinpoint his face in the crosshairs — a representation of how black men in America are treated by the criminal justice system.
We got it done down to the wire. I really would like to thank @phillymagicgardens for giving me this opportunity. Special thanks to Adam he help me all the way to the finish line. I would like to thank Isaiah for welcome me to his wonder land they don't call this place Magic Gardens for no reason. I was explaining my work to Isaiah and I said I'm not sure if you know what's happening to people like me in America. his reply was, how could I not know? That's why this work is important. #art #philadelphiamagicgardens #rightofreturn #thefuture #gettingitdone #rainsleetorsnow
According to Craig, art was always more about escapism and self expression than politics, but his personal experience inevitably impacts what he creates.
“When I did that [self-portrait] with the papers it was just an instinctive kinda thing,” he tells me, “now it kind of seems like, to a degree, a responsibility to make certain works, because we all know what’s going on.”
Mass incarceration is likely the political issue that Craig has addressed most directly in his work, but in conversation he speaks about the broader systemic oppression of black men in America as being a topic that he grapples with in his art and personal life. As many examples of police brutality and disproportionate punitive legal actions against black men as there are, Craig knows that there are still people who are in denial. He believes his role is to be someone who tries to change that.
The challenge, as he sees it, is presenting an ugly reality in a manner that makes it difficult to ignore or dismiss — “you’ve gotta be creative in a way to bring it to people’s attention so the dialogue can start about it.” Craig states that as a black artist, any individual flaw or misstep can and likely will be used to discredit your entire message, saying, “you can’t be too Tupac-ish with it, you can’t be too Kanye with it, because that’s what they want you to do. Even if you’re speaking truth, if it’s too rah-rah-rah, then you’re just this angry black guy.”
Because of those realities, it’s easy to think of Craig’s status as a rising star in the art world as an against-the-odds success story. In addition to landing a spot at Truth To Power, Craig was also an inaugural Right Of Return fellow — a program that invests in formerly incarcerated artists who address criminal justice reform through their work. Craig received a $10,000 prize as well as $10,000 to cover materials and overall production needs. His first solo exhibition was held at Philadelphia’s famous Magic Gardens.
Despite all of these accomplishments, Craig is only beginning to recognize his own success. When I ask him if he feels like he’s “made it,” he tells me that he’s only recently been able to start seeing things that way, saying, “I’m at that level where it’s still a job. It’s not easy — it’s not like I won the lottery for $150 million … it’s not that kinda made it.” He qualifies the statement by adding, “where we come from, we think of ‘made it’ like a Michael Jordan or a Jay-Z — somebody that’s really successful.”
Craig still spends long hours doing work on contract projects for Mural Arts as well as private clients, helping earn enough to also work on personal projects. He’ll occasionally spend day and night at the church making sure the work gets done on time. He tells me that he can see himself pulling the same kind of hours on personal projects in the future. When I ask him to survey his trajectory he tells me, “you’re catching it at the beginning. I’m in the arena now … who knows if I’ll be champion.” Given his past couple of years, it’s tough to doubt him.