Frontlines

An ex-con painter with an eye for business

Wayne Grigsby July 2 1979
Frontlines

An ex-con painter with an eye for business

Wayne Grigsby July 2 1979

An ex-con painter with an eye for business

Frontlines

PORTRAIT

Wayne Grigsby

Montreal artist Michel Pellus lounged gracefully across a table in the Café de la Paix, a relatively quiet corner in the fashionable St. Moritz Hotel. Over his shoulder, New York’s Central Park was blooming. Popping a couple of roasted almonds into his mouth, he whipped out a pocket calculator. As his fingers flew across the keyboard, he explained the economics of art in North America in the ’70s: “For an original, I can get maybe $8,000 if it’s a big canvas. But if I use it as the master for a series of say 250 prints at $350 per, we’re looking at”—punch punch, beep beep, chuckachuckachuck— “a gross of $87,500. I split that with Levine and Levine Graphics, my publishers [who also publish Salvador Dali], and Pm still left with $43,750. And I’ve got the original, which, because of the prints, probably doubles or triples in value.” Not a hint of embarrassment, glee or any other emotion flickers in his pale green eyes. It’s business as usual.

Spend any amount of time around 34-year-old Michel Pellus and the strange contradiction between his work and his persona looms large. It’s hard to reconcile this cool, calculating businessman with the artist whose paintings feature lollipop trees and clouds, soft, soothing pastel colors, airy spaces and innocent-faced, near-bland, human figures. “My paintings are like absorbent cotton,” he says. “They will pull you into them. They’re not threatening. I don’t slap your face, I rub your head.” Asked how he reconciles the practical and the fantastical he shrugs, “I don’t. They’re just different facets of me, I guess.”

The great bulk of his work was done under trying physical circumstances. He was in prison, on a 14-year stretch for trafficking in narcotics. On his first and only attempt to sell six pounds of

heroin (“I was helping a guy out”) he was busted and in 1971 he was sent to St. Vincent de Paul maximum-security penitentiary just outside Montreal. He quickly qualified to move to mediumand then minimumsecurity prisons, finally settling at the Leclerc Institute. He had decided to paint even as he was being arrested. “It had become clear to me that I was not cut out to be a dealer,” he wryly admits. “I’m not devious enough. So I decided to paint. It had been around me all my life. My grandfather was an artist, my father, and my mother too. I never doubted I could do it. It was just a matter of learning the technique.” Thus began a running battle between Pellus and Canada’s penal system. Pellus wanted to paint and nothing else. Making licence plates or mailbags held no interest for him. Forced to conform to regulations, he did a bare minimum of work and spent the rest of the time in his cell, painting.

With public relations consultant Phyllis Padgham marketing his work on the outside, Pellus began to enjoy some return on his investment. Outside, he was building a reputation as an artist. Inside, he was building a reputation as a nonconformist, a prisoner who refused to abide by the laws of rehabilitation. Padgham began working on getting Pellus a parole. After he had been turned down in 1975, she had visited her MP Warren Allmand who, at the time, happened to be solicitor-general. His office advised Padgham on how appeals could be presented to the review board in Ottawa. Allmand’s senior assistant, John Welch, remembers meeting Pellus on an inspection tour of Leclerc: “He was without a doubt, the rudest, most pompous individual I’d ever met.” Pellus remembers, too: “I was told some big shot from Ottawa wanted to see me, meet me. Like I was some performing animal. When they brought him into the cell, I told him off.” It took a long time for Padgham, Welch and others to convince Pellus to drop his scrappy stance, to play the game, to demonstrate the kind of change in attitude the parole board was looking for. But a second refusal of parole in 1976 nearly sent all interested parties up the wall. It resulted in Allmand dropping a note to the board in Ottawa, suggesting that perhaps the officials concerned should be taking into consideration the pris-

oner’s own attempts at rehabilitation through painting. Pellus reapplied and parole came through in June, 1977.

The parole board had not only found Pellus’ attitude disconcerting, it had been worried about his obsessive approach to painting. The mania with which he worked didn’t augur a “balanced personality.” And indeed, Pellus was churning out works at an astonishing clip. “I think I did 70 or 75 monochromes that first year (1972). I worked from whatever was around me, whatever I could get my hands on, which was mainly pictures out of Playboy and Penthouse."

From the realism of the early works, fantasy slowly emerged. “I was working on a painting [Le Cliché) of a kid looking out a window,” Pellus remembers. “I just tried to imagine how a kid might see the world outside.” That led to lemon-drop bushes, grape-colored clouds, and highways floating in midair, leading to castles in the clouds. Singing star Ginette Reno snapped one up when she appeared on a TV talk show with

him; film-maker Robert Altman commissioned a poster for his ill-fated movie Quintet from Pellus and took two of his better works back to Hollywood with him; a Pellus self-portrait has graced the cover of Weekend magazine. Reluctant to follow the traditional gallery/exhibition route, he has hung works in the lobby of Montreal’s theatrical complex, Place des Arts, and in the clubhouse of Vernon Downs racetrack in New York state. He has also exhib-

ited at art fairs like Washington’s Wash Art, the Basel Art Fair in Switzerland and this spring he had his own booth at New York’s Artexpo.

Pellus is out to make his mark in the art world—the new North American mass-market art world. An upwardly mobile, upper-middle-class young North America is into “lifestyle,” meaning designer clothes, gourmet cooking and art—but affordable art. The demand for affordable art is strong enough to have spawned a network of publishers and wholesalers ready to supply. It has become an industry, and, as such, needs trade shows like Artexpo, held annually at the New York Coliseum. At Artexpo, Michel Pellus manned a booth festooned with the paraphernalia common to all industrial shows: a slide projector illustrating the Pellus catalogue, glossy brochures and souvenir stamps. The walls of the booth held originals which weren’t for sale and samples of the prints, which most definitely were for sale. In the course of the five-day show, distributors, wholesalers and browsers bought up copies of his current print edition, a three-piece suite called Homage to the Masters— Chagall, Dali and Picasso as seen by Michel Pellus. The art establishmentcritics, gallery owners and artists alike—sneers at this kind of mass marketing. Michel Pellus sneers right back: “What am I supposed to do, sit back and wait until I’m discovered? And then let gallery owners take 40 to 50 per cent?”

Direct participation in the marketing of his work is just one more way of staying in control, something paramount to Pellus. He refuses to deal with galleries or be represented by an agent. Shortly after he got out of prison, he parted company with Phyllis Padgham, preferring to keep the reins of his career in his own hands.

Even the sale of an original is different with Pellus. You deal directly with him and be prepared for a sales agreement that guarantees him 20 per cent of the profits of any future sale of the work. There’s also a stipulation that Pellus has the right of last bid in any future sale. In return, Pellus guarantees an appreciation of 20 per cent in the first two years you own the painting, 10 per cent if you only hang on to it for a year. And if you decide you don’t like the painting within the first six months, he’ll return your money.

At that rapacious rate of dealing, his output has diminished. “I was doing 30 to 35 a year inside,” says Pellus. “Now I’m down to 10, maybe 12. The work has suffered only in that there are more distractions now, which tend to keep me out of the studio. But when I do paint, I paint with the same intensity I did in prison. It absorbs me totally.”

But one of his faithful collectors, Gerald Schnitzer, a financial consultant in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, has reservations. Despite owning three originals, and a continuing admiration for Pellus both as an artist and as a man, Schnitzer is blunt: “He should not be marketing his own work. He’s not handling it well,” he says. “He’s got to get over this businessman thing. He’s got some money in his pocket now, and I’d like to see him get back into serious work.” Pellus just smiles and shakes his head. “People seem to resent the fact that I can handle both the painting and the marketing. They still have this image of the artist with his feet off the ground and his head in the clouds,” he says. “People react positively to my paintings, and that’s enough for me. I don’t need a cape and a beret to tell me I’m an artist.”