A Former Inmate’s Journey from Prison to Italy to Study Painting

“This is my paint gear,” George Anthony Morton said, apologizing for splatters that only he could see on his black T-shirt. He had spent the afternoon at his easel, painting a portrait of someone he had asked to pose for him.

“This hasn’t gotten to the stage where it’s satisfactory yet,” he said, but he was upbeat — he had two more sessions with her. “Hopefully, I’ll be able to refine it,” he said.

Every artist has a story. Mr. Morton wants his to be about where he is going: the Florence Academy of Art, in Italy. He is to attend a six-week workshop there starting in July.

That is unusual. He applied and was accepted, and is the only student from the academy’s American branch, the Florence Academy of Art U.S., who will be going. But it is not as unusual as the part of his story that he does not want dominating the conversation, the part about where he has been, which is federal prison. He served nine years and six months of an 11-year sentence after pleading guilty to a drug charge in Missouri, where he grew up.

“All my 20s,” said Mr. Morton, 33, who now lives in Jersey City.

He was released three years ago and ordered to check in with a supervising officer regularly for 10 years. Last month, Judge Gary A. Fenner terminated the supervision requirement.

“Early termination of supervised release is fairly unusual,” said Harlan Protass, a Manhattan lawyer who got a Harlem drug dealer serving a life sentence out of prison. “There typically has to be a very good reason for a judge to terminate a term of supervised release.”

Mr. Morton’s application to end his parole mentioned learning to paint in prison. It mentioned murals he painted in the officers’ mess halls in the two prisons where he did his time. (Midway through his sentence, he was transferred from a prison in Greenville, Ill., to one in Littleton, Colo.)

The application mentioned that in 2015, he began studying at the Florence Academy of Art U.S., in the Mana Arts complex here in Jersey City. In 2016, he won the school’s award for the best portrait of the year.

In February and March this year, he spent one day a week in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s copyist program, creating interpretation of masterpieces with his easel set up in galleries. In April, one of his paintings was in a gallery show in Sag Harbor, N.Y., in the Hamptons. The Sag Harbor Express printed an article about him with the headline “A Rembrandt From the Streets.” The painting sold before the show opened.

Learning to paint is hard work, and Jordan Sokol, an artist and the academic director of the Florence Academy’s American branch, said Mr. Morton had “a pretty profound work ethic.”

“It’s as if he’s trying to catch up for time lost,” Mr. Sokol said. “He’s usually the last one to leave the studio. Often he’s the first one here.”

The school emphasizes classical means and methods of putting paint on canvas and charcoal on paper or turning stone into sculpture — the techniques of the old masters. “There are African-American painters in this tradition, but not many,” Mr. Sokol said.

Mr. Morton is well aware that when he completes his studies in December, he will be the first African-American to graduate from the Florence Academy of Art U.S. “To be an artist, to be an American artist, to be an African-American artist — I don’t take it lightly,” Mr. Morton said.

Mr. Morton is the oldest of 11 children. “My mother had me at 15,” he said. “She was just a little girl raising children. We kind of grew up together.”

He dropped out of school when he was in seventh grade. He was arrested for selling drugs when he was 19 in Kansas City, Mo., where he was living. He said it had happened in “a high-traffic area where I could make some money.”

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Source: The New York Times | JAMES BARRON