The Art World Isn’t Enough

ALBUQUERQUE — What does it take for art to make a difference, to create change? 

Albuquerque-based artist sheri crider pursues answers to this question by tapping into art’s transformative power. Having grown tired of empty promises from local and federal government officials when it comes to critical issues, such as criminal justice reform, she situates her interactive sculpture, painting, and collaborative projects in prison cells, classrooms, courtrooms, and, yes, even galleries. 

“I’ve decided to double down on things that I really believe in, which are supporting emerging artists and making artwork that is firmly rooted in criminal justice reform and transforming people’s lives who are impacted by this huge system,” she told me in a recent interview.  

In May of this year, the Art for Justice Fund named crider one of the Spring 2023 Art for Justice Grantees who “prioritize support for currently and formerly incarcerated artists.” (Haley Greenfeather English and Szu-Han Ho, two other Albuquerque artists, have also been named grantees. Ho’s work was included in the Ford Foundation Gallery’s Art for Justice Fund exhibition No Justice Without Love, which closed in June.)

Crider knows firsthand the positive impact that art can have on individuals and communities, and she knows how support from organizations like Art for Justice can be life-changing. Originally from Phoenix, she experienced houselessness and addiction at a young age, and was incarcerated early on. Her path, transformational but certainly not simple, led her to the University of New Mexico, where she earned her MFA in sculpture in 2001.

Fronteristxs, “New Mexico Educational Retirement Board Divest Project Banner” banner drop (2020) at Sanitary Tortilla Factory; “Botanical Mural” (2017), pastel (image courtesy the artist)

Crider noted to me that exhibition opportunities in Albuquerque in the early 2000s mostly belonged “to the cool, White, academic boy’s club.” After grad school, it became apparent to her that artists didn’t have much of what they required to succeed. “We needed equipment, community, and space to test new ideas,” she said. “We needed models of creating the artistic life we studied in school. With that in mind, I founded my first artist-centered space.”

Today, in addition to running her own general contracting business, supporting emerging artists, and working with system-impacted youth, crider owns and operates Sanitary Tortilla Factory (STF). The arts venue comprises an exhibition gallery, fabrication space, 15 below-market-value studios (including two that are free of charge to historically underrepresented artists), and a social practice residency. 

The building that currently houses STF is a former Mexican cafe and tortilla factory in the southwest area of the city. For more than 30 years, the original M & J’s Sanitary Tortilla Factory “fed and supported artists while filling their plates and hearts,” according to STF’s website, including artist Tina Fuentes and the band Yo La Tengo. After the restaurant closed in 2004, the building sat vacant until 2015, when crider launched STF as a necessity for maintaining her own art practice and as an access point for community members to make and see art.

As part of her doubling down, crider positions STF to support MFA and other emerging artist exhibitions and devotes a portion of the line-up to artists who are making work for criminal justice reform. 

For many artists, sustaining an art practice, especially one that aims to have a direct social rather than commercial impact, can be a struggle. But crider’s efforts are getting attention. In 2017 she received an inaugural Right of Return fellowship. The following year the University of New Mexico Art Museum presented her exhibition Flight, supported by Right of Return. And in 2020 the University of Arizona hosted Other TARGET/s, a group exhibition and multimedia installation by crider, M. Jenea Sanchez, Gabriela Muñoz, and Shontina Vernon.

sheri crider and Obie Weathers III, “Transveil” (2018), with Christine Wong Yap’s “Flags of Safety and Resilience” (image courtesy the artist)

Transformation is not just an idea or conceptual framework for crider, it’s a physical act. For example, “TransVEIL,” which she created in collaboration with Obie Weathers III, who is currently facing the death penalty in Texas, is a mobile surveillance trailer converted for mutual aid (think water and local food). For her series NonTactical Monuments, she transforms policing equipment such as border patrol rescue beacons to address “our limited conceptions of safety, crime, and punishment.” According to US Customs and Border Protection, “the rescue beacons provide the capability for a migrant to call for medical assistance or rescue while automatically providing a location. Rescue beacons are self-contained, solar-powered units placed in remote locations considered to be high risk for people in distress.” Crider explained that in fact these units are frequently used to detain migrants. In her work they “become historical markers for the thousands of detention deaths” and “point to the vast machinery and technology deployed in mass incarceration.” 

As in NonTactical Monuments, crider’s work about incarceration often overlaps with immigration. “It’s the very same system, it’s incarcerating people,” she said. “It’s for-profit and based on skin color and class — it’s the very same system.”

Tapping into art’s more conventional visual language, crider also creates paintings. She explained that the compositions “collapse history, landscape, and the economics of the prison industrial complex by combining abstraction and representational imagery.”

“These two-dimensional works trace the complicated, intertwined histories of manifest destiny, colonialism, and capitalism while underscoring their impact on all of our communities,” she added.

So what does assistance from Art for Justice — to “prioritize support for currently and formerly incarcerated artists” — look like?  

sheri crider, “Mobile Abolition Library” illustration (2023); full project is a collaboration with Fronteristxs (image courtesy the artist)

For crider, it means making the inhumane, dangerous, and often deadly conditions of incarceration visible, tangible, and mobile. With Art for Justice support, she is gearing up for a statewide series of exhibitions and programs in New Mexico that “trace the intersections of immigrants, women, queer folxs, and the criminal justice system” and “amplify narratives of marginalized communities within criminal justice reform while creating opportunities to dismantle outdated and overused connections between incarceration and public safety.” The project’s key collaborative partners include the artist collective Fronteristxs, which will create and deploy the Mobile Abolitionist Library, and teams of formerly incarcerated people to assemble, finish, and distribute libraries in Colorado and New Mexico Freedom Reads. Plans are also in the works for a collaboration with Danny McCarthy Clifford’s Section of Disapproved Books and a statewide series of exhibitions of formerly incarcerated artists.

“I’m working toward real, actionable change in people’s lives, creating opportunities for housing, mentorship, and community with artists facing similar obstacles. But then there’s the art piece of it,” crider asserted. “Art transformed my life because it was something that I was good at, and the act of making art is healing, meditative, and transformative. It can be transformative for other people and for communities, too. Art is a place to direct our energy and it can transform people’s opinions.” 

In addition, crider is in the process of forming GOLDEN, a nonprofit that supports reentry and housing through STF, created in direct response to the overwhelming challenges she experienced, and other people continue to face. GOLDEN aligns itself with the Youth Civic Infrastructure Fund, as both build on the core belief of SB64, which Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham recently signed into law, bringing life sentences for juveniles to an end. Crider explained that the opportunity of youth release that this bill creates needs supportive structures in the community, and STF and GOLDEN are poised to meet that need.

“When we’re doing something outside of prisons, such as the mobile abolition library, or an exhibition, we also have to create something on the inside,” said crider. “Art can play a role in drawing attention to social issues, but tangible actions that bring about real change is where I’m invested.”

sheri crider, “Most Everyone Who Believed In The Best of Me” (2017), 6 x 6 x 20 feet, installed at entrance of Flight exhibition at the University of New Mexico Art Museum (image courtesy the artist)