The indictment reads “…the defendant, Michael D. Warlick, did knowingly and intentionally possess with intent to distribute a controlled substance, to wit: 500 grams or more of a mixture and substance containing a detectable amount of cocaine, its salts, optical and geometric isomers, and salts of isomers.” In terms that may be more familiar from prime time police dramas, Michael was arrested for, pled guilty to, and was sentenced to 7 years in prison for, being a drug dealer.
A decidedly troubled adult, Michael was no stranger to the criminal justice system even before the arrest that sent him to a low security federal prison outside of a small, dusty Arizona town in 2010. Previous drug convictions, forgery, and fraud all appear on his record at varying intervals, but with regularity. He was sentenced at the age of 36, a time when he might have been enjoying the prime of his life had he chosen a different path.
We join the story with Michael three years into his sentence, passing his time by taking college courses, educating himself on the real estate market, monitoring current events, and painting what he calls “conversation pieces.” On canvasses without predictable dimensions, he creates scenes that are meant to elicit reactions from those who see them, despite the artist’s insistence that the work is not meant to be accusatory nor is it politically motivated for or against one side. The art cries out for an audience, especially in a sea of beautiful fireweed and soaring mountain views; his work has a garish, almost vulgar, quality that is alternatively captivating and menacing. Many of the pieces have a tactile quality that practically jumps out at you as it draws you closer to the paint.[pullquote_right]Nobody wants a drug dealer for a son.[/pullquote_right]
Thanks in no small part to his mother, Judy Ehling and her friend (and gallery owner) Nikki Kinne, as well as the United States Postal Service, a dozen of Michael’s pieces, all completed within the walls of a Federal Correctional Institute, will be on display for the month of February at the Arts Learning Center. The prison lets the artist buy all the supplies he needs from an online retailer; once he’s supplied, he paints 6 pieces a month, on average. They travel up the coast and arrive at Judy’s home in large batches, each leaving her as amazed as the one before. The two talk on the phone weekly, and after a shipment is received, Michael explains the meanings behind the paintings and points out the hidden cues to his mother.
Although she’s dismissive of her own work in deference to that of her son, Judy is an artist in her own right and will be sharing the gallery walls with him for his first show. “Once I saw his work, I wanted to hide mine. When he was a kid, I taught him how to draw a cat and a horse using circles and squares and things. As long as I can remember, whether it was a pencil or crayon, he was always drawing. I always made sure that he had paper and I encouraged him to make art because I was always drawing too.”
While mother and son work largely in the same mediums, the similarities end there. Judy’s recent work is quite the contrast to her son’s in size, theme, use of color, technique, and emotion, but she, too, has a past that you might not expect by looking at her current pieces. In the late 90′s, after decades of creating art in private, Judy approached several gallery owners in town with the paintings quite unlike those she’s showing these days, but was summarily rebuffed. “I guess some of them would be surreal, some would be fantasy. A lot of people didn’t want that type of art because they felt that people wouldn’t buy it. It was the first time I’d made an attempt to hang any paintings in a gallery, so I thought the owners knew more than I did.”
As a result, Michael’s mother adopted a new style, still rich with talent but this time squarely grounded in reality.
When asked about her son’s incarceration, Judy’s reaction is much as you would expect from a mother. Among her three sons, she calls Michael the “black sheep,” but she speaks of him with a combination of wistfulness and well-worn sorrow. “Nobody wants a drug dealer for a son, I sure didn’t, but we did the best that we could. I guess he just wanted to make fast money, easy money. He’s an educated man, has a sense of humor, he’s kind and thoughtful.” She hopes for an early release for good behavior.
I feel that when he gets out, he will walk the straight and narrow road. I think he’s changing because he’s gotten older and he’s missed out on a lot of his kid’s lives by being in jail. He has regrets. He wishes he could take back the things that he’s done, but it’s too late.
*We were not able to reach Michael for comment, but can provide the pertinent details to anyone wishing to contact him directly. The show, “Sons Truth and Mother’s Mirage” will be available at The Arts Learning Center throughout the month of February. Bolded captions are titles while comments in italics are notes scrawled on the back of each canvas by the artist’s own hand.
Photos by: Ronn Murray Photography