When Michael Pelletier was 11 years old, he was riding on the back of a tractor driven by his older brother on the potato farm run by his family in northern Maine. He fell off, but his brother didn’t realize, and turned the tractor, running over Pelletier and crushing both his legs; he has been a paraplegic, confined to a wheelchair, ever since. The best treatment that Pelletier found for the resulting muscle spasms and bladder problems, when he was a teenager, was marijuana. Decades later, when he was 50, he began serving a life sentence in federal prison for a nonviolent marijuana conspiracy offense — trafficking and selling bags of a few pounds that altogether may have totaled over a ton, according to the court case and appeals.
In prison, Pelletier took up oil painting. You can see a collection of the pieces at the clemency organization CAN-DO; the best is a white stallion rendered in sweeps of rainbow-pastel colors, a little bit of abstract expressionism mixed with Lisa Frank. (The images are photographed with the plastic wrap that protects them.) Pelletier paints animals, landscapes, portraits, and still lives, like an orchid in a blue pot rendered in deep chiaroscuro. It’s an American, often southwestern, vernacular, not complicated or challenging but satisfying — the result of real passion and work on the part of the artist, one feels. Pelletier taught art classes for other inmates, too, an official gig that earned him $4.80 per month from the Bureau of Prisons.
Painting, too, seems like a kind of self-medication or therapy. The discipline of learning to use the materials and move from a vision in your head to the physical canvas is an accomplishment, one of the few that Pelletier could undertake. “When a paraplegic or someone confined to a wheelchair is incarcerated, we are confined to our cells,” Pelletier told CAN-DO. “We can’t work in the kitchen, on the outside crew, in maintenance.” “Having a life sentence is a feeling of dying every day,” he said. Creating something — almost anything — is a way of feeling alive and making a mark in the world, even if you can’t leave a cell.
Pelletier’s story, with its hopeful ending, brings up the fundamental belief that we have in art as offering a chance at redemption or change. The introversion of the painter at her easel can be a kind of spiritual devotion that alters the artist and then the rest of us in turn when we look at it. It doesn’t matter if the paintings aren’t masterpieces or don’t move some rarefied aesthetic conversation forward; they still represent a particular vision of human life, what it means to be alive. Or at least that’s the ideal.
George W. Bush is another possible criminal who became a painter. Although the former president’s portraits were first revealed by an email-account hack, Bush has embraced the identity of an artist and released books of his paintings. In 2020, a new volume collected portraits of immigrants — not exactly a core Republican concern. The fascination with Bush’s painting turn, adopted as a kind of retirement gig with the not-incidental side benefit of good PR, also has to do with the identity of the artist. A powerful politician, as public as any figure could be, turned into a private, introspective hobbyist. Instead of thinking about war in the Middle East he was meditating on his view of his own feet in the bathtub. What was he thinking, exactly — Reconsidering his policy decisions, dealing with the post-traumatic stress disorder that must come from being president, or just killing time in a traditional retiree manner?
The cliche of the artist is as a complicated figure, mercurial, working alone. We trust in the authenticity of art as a mode of communal conversation, the artist in some ways leading the pack. Pelletier turned to art to endure his prison sentence; did Bush’s painting change his mind at all? When looking at his most infamous canvas, a lumpy portrait of Vladimir Putin that betrays none of the intimacy or knowledge of someone who must have known the man personally, one concludes that art hasn’t done much to him, only his reputation. In a way, art is the brand of redemption, like doing a silent retreat or finding religion, becoming a monk. Art is both morally complicated and socially good, therefore it can cover up any number of sins.
No matter the scope of its power, it’s hard to compare art to the very real injustice of serving a life sentence for selling now-legalized marijuana or the destruction of a unnecessary war. By posing art as the hook for redemption, we downplay the structural problems that we’re redeeming by implication. Art becomes a balm rather than a solution.
Trump also pardoned the art dealer Helly Nahmad, who was brought in on a federal gambling charge for a long-running high-stakes poker game. The gambling ring happened to be run out of Trump Tower. Nahmad only served five months out of his year-and-a-day sentence. We call out corruption in government or an immoral president with indignation, but somehow at the highest levels of the art world we accept or even depend on an aura of white-collar crime, or at least money laundering. It could be because we want a certain veneer of impropriety from art, the darkness of danger, suspect transactions, emotional extremes. That context is sometimes what makes the objects powerful, or more powerful than they would be on their own.
After his pardon, Nahmad has pledged to keep giving back to the community. Maybe the thought of his art collection sustained him during his sentence, thinking about the stockpile of Warhols or Picassos. Did the art redeem him? Probably not, but it still provides a great cover for a range of financial gambling, legal and not so much.
The organization CAN-DO notes that Pelletier will live with one of his seven siblings upon his release from prison and can rely on his family for support in the future. While art wasn’t the sole reason for his pardon (the extremity of the sentence and time already served was) it seems like that he’ll keep painting as well. That might be the mark of the true artist — they do it even when there’s no reason to, when there’s no money to be made and no one watching.