When I met him earlier this year, James "Yaya" Hough was surrounded by white buckets of blue and orange paint, working in the downtown Philadelphia studio that came — before coronavirus — along with the first-ever artist residency at the Philadelphia District Attorney's office. He was focused on one of his portraits of various lawyers, victims' rights advocates, judges and formerly incarcerated people now on display around the city in an exhibition called Points of Connection.
"I've been an artist since I was a child," Hough told me, recalling life-changing trips to the Carnegie Museum of Art in his hometown of Pittsburgh. "But unfortunately, I grew up in a very dysfunctional environment that led me, in the worst of ways, to become involved with crime and violence to the point where, by the time I was 17 years old, I was arrested, charged and convicted for killing a man, over nothing justifiable."
Hough, now 46, is soft faced and soft spoken. He served 27 years in prison. Hough's release came in the wake of a 2012 Supreme Court case brought by renowned civil rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson that ruled juvenile life sentences, like Hough's, unconstitutional. In prison, Hough had been extremely involved with the arts – painting portraits of fellow prisoners as gifts, and taking classes with Mural Arts Philadelphia, the largest public art program in the country.
Jane Golden founded Mural Arts Philadelphia 35 years ago and now teaches art at prisons through the program's Restorative Justice project. Among her students at Graterford Prison, she says Hough immediately established himself as a leader.
"He was always mature, thoughtful and had incredible talent," she says. "So when he got out in April, we knew we wanted to work with him. It was just a question of how and when."
Enter Agnes Gund: Back in 2017, the philanthropist and activist started the Art for Justice Fund, dedicated to using the arts in the service of criminal justice reform. To fund it, she sold one of her most expensive paintings — a Roy Lichtenstein — for more than a $150 million.
"We know art can spark understanding and awareness where traditional methods of engagement fall short," Gund said as part of a public conference early in October, during which she announced additional support for Hough's project that will continue through this year. Together with the organization Fair and Just Prosecution, these organizations worked with the Philadelphia District Attorney's office to create an artist's residency for Hough. (Not a dime of taxpayer money was spent in support of this project, according to those involved.)
Philadelphia's district attorney was enthusiastic from the start. It helped that Larry Krasner is well-known as a social justice reformer, the type who can be spotted online (in a buttoned-up shirt and tie) singing protest songs by The Clash.
As district attorney, Krasner says his job demands empathy for everyone in the system — police, victims, prosecutors and defendants, including those, he says, who do not belong behind bars. "Or even defendants who deserve to be there and should stay there," he says. "I think that it's important we never dehumanize any of these folks. And art does that. Art works against dehumanization."
Originally, as an artist in residence, James Hough was supposed to spend time at the district attorney's office, observing and meeting with various people there. The coronavirus changed that. Still, Hough participated remotely. He was fascinated by the data he was able to access.
"The amount of shootings in a city," he offered by way of example. "I mean not just the raw numbers, or who, but the times of day — so much information. And it makes me think like, if we're only compiling this stuff to generate prosecutorial policy or legislative policy that only confront crime in an adversarial way, then that's actually part of the problem. There needs to be more creative use of this data."
Advocates such as Jane Golden argue the arts are the perfect place to find creativity and innovation at a moment when there's a national push for criminal justice and prison reform. The residency she helped create also pays the salary of Hough's assistant, Akeil Robertson. Now 30, he was also convicted of murder as a juvenile by the very same District Attorney's office where he now helps document the work of victims' advocacy groups and the efforts of formerly incarcerated people to reduce crime in the city.
"I didn't paint or draw before prison," he says. Now, Robertson is in art school. Hough gave him some rudimentary art supplies while the two were serving time. Even more importantly, Robertson says, Hough showed him the basics — both when it came to making art and in reconciling himself with his past.
"That really allowed for me to do the work he's speaking about, which is reflection," Robertson says. "Because when he gave me a sketchbook, I was like, 'What do you use this for?' and he said, effectively, 'To get to know yourself.' "
That's where change begins, says Hough, whose work is also included in the show Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration currently at MoMa PS1 in New York. His next projects include helping to get this residency replicated in other district attorney's offices around the country.
TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:
Next, a story about an heiress who sold a valuable painting and helped change the life of a man convicted of murder. The money from the sale paid for an unusual artist's residency at, of all places, the Philadelphia prosecutor's office. NPR's Neda Ulaby tells us more.
NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Artist James "Yaya" Hough was painting in the downtown Philadelphia studio that came before quarantine as part of his residency. Surrounded by white buckets of blue and orange paint, he focused on one of the portraits he was making of various lawyers, victims' rights advocates, judges and formerly incarcerated people that are now on display around Philadelphia.
JAMES 'YAYA' HOUGH: All the colors in the space...
AKEIL ROBERTSON: Yeah.
ULABY: That's Hough and his studio assistant, Akeil Robertson. They met in prison, both of them convicted for murder as juveniles. Hough served nearly three decades. He's now 46 years old.
HOUGH: I've been an artist since I was a child, but unfortunately, I grew up in a very dysfunctional environment that led me in the worst of ways to become involved with crime and violence. By the time I was 17 years old, I was arrested, charged and convicted for killing a man over nothing justifiable by any stretch of the imagination.
ULABY: Hough was released last year from prison because of a Supreme Court case that ruled juvenile life sentences unconstitutional. That case was brought by a renowned civil rights lawyer, Bryan Stevenson. He's friends with Agnes Gund. She's a philanthropist who sold one of her most expensive paintings, a Roy Lichtenstein, for more than $150 million. She used most of that money to start a fund three years ago called Art for Justice.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
AGNES GUND: We know art can spark understanding and awareness where traditional methods of engagement fall short.
ULABY: That's Gund and her dog in a public online conference earlier this month. It took a bunch of visionary people to put a formerly incarcerated artist in residence at the Philadelphia district attorney's office, including the actual district attorney. Larry Krasner is a well-known reformer, the type of progressive who can be found in online videos singing protest songs by The Clash.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
LARRY KRASNER: (Singing) We will train our blue-eyed men to be young believers.
I cannot affirm that that was singing. I think that was more like sad yelling by an older person.
ULABY: Krasner says his job as DA demands empathy for everyone in the system - police, victims, prosecutors and defendants - including, he says, those who do not belong behind bars.
KRASNER: Or even defendants who deserve to be there and should stay there. I think that it is important that we never dehumanize any of these folks. And art does that. Art works against dehumanization.
ULABY: Krasner worked with the nation's largest public arts program, Mural Arts Philadelphia, to pick the artist for this residency. They chose Yaya Hough because of his involvement with mural arts classes in prisons and because he knew the system. Hough says he was fascinated by the facts he learned from being around the DA's office, even remotely.
HOUGH: The amount of shootings in a city - it's so much information. And it makes me think, like, if we're only compiling this stuff to generate prosecutorial policy or legislative policy that only confronts crime in an adversarial way, then that's actually part of the problem. You know, there needs to be more creative use of this data.
ULABY: You could argue the arts are a place to find creativity and innovation at a moment where there's a national push for criminal justice and prison reform. Hough made portraits in prison for people to send to their families, and he taught art to other incarcerated men, including his current studio assistant. Thirty-year-old Akeil Robertson is now in art school. In prison, he says, Yaya Hough showed him the basics.
ROBERTSON: This is how you make a circle. All right, go ahead. Do this. Practice. Matter of fact, I'm going to give you a couple of pencils, some brushes and some paint. See what you can do. That really allowed for me, you know, to kind of do the work that he's speaking about, which is reflection. When he gave me a sketchbook, I was kind of like, what do you use this for? And he said, effectively, to get to know yourself.
ULABY: That's where change begins, says James "Yaya" Hough, whose work is also included in a show up now at MoMA PS1 in New York. He's trying now to help get this residency replicated in other DA's offices around the country.
Neda Ulaby, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAG'S "LABRADOR (ENCORE)" Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.