Meet The First Artist In Residence At Philadelphia's District Attorney's Office "I've been an artist since I was a child," says James "Yaya" Hough. After serving 27 years in prison, he is now the first-ever artist in residence at the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office.
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Artist In Residence Creates Portraits Of Reform At The District Attorney's Office

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Artist In Residence Creates Portraits Of Reform At The District Attorney's Office

Artist In Residence Creates Portraits Of Reform At The District Attorney's Office

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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.

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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.

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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.

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