Behind bars, inmate’s painting eases his families’ suffering

Published 9:30 am Monday, July 8, 2013

ST. PAUL — Life sometimes carries us to deep, dark, places. This is a story about climbing out.

It starts with a self-absorbed drug dealer standing before a federal judge in Minneapolis. Michael Bellotti was 24 years old, a veteran of multiple arrests — and newly sentenced to more than 12 years in prison.

“To listen to the judge convict him was probably one of the worst things a parent could ever hear,” says his mother, Diana Williams.

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“It doesn’t even seem real,” adds Bellotti, looking back.

As he was hauled off to federal prisons in Sandstone and then Duluth, Bellotti couldn’t have slipped much lower. Turns out, that’s what it took for him to begin picking himself back up.

Encouraged by another inmate, Bellotti started painting. He’d lost interest in his studies early on in high school, and certainly didn’t take an art class. But once he started, he couldn’t stop.

“I bought the Bob Ross ‘Joy of Painting’ book,” says Bellotti about his instruction. He painted every single day — every minute, really — that he wasn’t eating, sleeping or required to be in his cell.

His work was rudimentary at first, but he was making strides. Bellotti would scour other inmate’s magazines for interesting photographs and then paint them.

“It was my escape,” he says. He produced hundred of paintings.

Bellotti had been given a gift. Then, at his mother’s urging, he gave one back.

Bellotti’s cousin, Adam Carter, died of cancer while he was away at prison. Williams asked her son to paint a picture of Adam as a Christmas present for Adam’s parents.

Mary Carter, Adam’s mother, had heard her nephew had taken up painting in prison, but had no idea how far he had come as an artist.

She’d been overwhelmed with grief over the loss of her son. “It was so dark. Yeah, I was lost,” she says.

But after opening Adam’s portrait at a family holiday gathering and wiping away her tears, Carter had a feeling it was the beginning of something special. “I knew right then, that was something we could do.”

A few months later when Carter saw a photo of McKenna Johnson, a 10-year-old from Brooklyn Park, in a newspaper obituary, she was ready.

“I literally just showed up at their doorstep with it,” says Carter about the portrait she’d asked her nephew to paint.

On the other side of the door was McKenna’s mother, Krista Johnson. “Just out of the blue here’s this woman who comes and delivers to me a beautiful painting and portrait of my daughter.”

Johnson broke into tears. “He’d actually captured everything about her that was beautiful in that painting,” she said.

Like Adam, McKenna had died of cancer. Also like Adam, McKenna’s portrait now has a prominent place near the stairs of her family’s home. “Every morning when I come downstairs, it’s the first thing I see,” said her mom.

Carter could see what the painting meant to Johnson. “And I left there going, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t wait to do the next one.’”

And neither could Bellotti.

Since then, more than 30 grieving families have been presented with one of Bellotti’s paintings, each delivered by his aunt — joined now by his mother, too.

Along the way, Carter created the Adam Carter Foundation to help administer the project. She’s also affiliated with the Minnesota chapter of HopeKids, an organization that connects her with grieving families.

“These have to be perfect,” says Bellotti. “It’s representing a lost life. It’s not just brush strokes anymore.”

Upon his release from prison last year, after more than a decade behind bars, the former drug dealer who’d never before picked up a brush, opened his own studio in St. Paul. When he’s not painting portraits for the Adam Carter Foundation, he’s doing commissions and selling his art.

“I definitely think there was divine intervention at some point,” said his mother, “and I believe things happen for a reason.”

If Bellotti hadn’t gone to prison he would have never found his talent, his aunt Mary wouldn’t have found comfort delivering his portraits and Mary Catherine Vernig wouldn’t be found on Bellotti’s easel.

Vernig was diagnosed with neuroblastoma a few weeks after her graduation from Onamia High School.

“Valedictorian, female student athlete of the year, and a month-and-a-half later she was fighting for her life,” said her father Arden Vernig. Arden and his wife Patti are both doctors at the hospital in Onamia.

It was there, on a recent evening, that Carter and Williams delivered Bellott’s finished painting of Mary Catherine.

“Oh, Mary,” said her mother, softly, upon seeing her daughter’s image.

Bellotti was not present. He never is. Even after his release from prison, he chooses to stay away from deliveries, not wanting the moment to be about him. But it’s clear from the Vernig’s reaction, the artist has captured Mary Catherine’s spirit.

“The eyes,” says Arden Vernig, his voice cracking. “He did a great job.”

Even deep, dark places have switches. Michael Bellotti is doing his best to turn the lights back on.