Behind A Stolen Painting, An Artist With A Remarkable Life Story
Earlier this year, news broke about a painting stolen from an art gallery in Meredith. There aren’t many art heists in New Hampshire, which got us interested in learning more about the artist who made the painting.
It turns out his life story is a remarkable one, with detours through the state prison and a 1988 exhibition that would reshape his life.
(Editor’s note: we highly recommend listening to this story.)
"I've had quite a life.”
Dennis Morton - Danny to his friends - isn’t exaggerating when he tries to sum up the last 73 years.
“My mother got pregnant by a black man in West Virginia, and at that time it wasn’t too cool, so I ended up being taken to some foster homes,” he explains.
After bouncing around for a few years, Morton landed at a group home in a rural section of West Virginia. He loved it there, but was forced to leave after the matriarch of the house suffered a heart attack.
“They took all 13 of us kids out in a field on a summer night, and one by one, people came up the driveway until there was nobody left.”
From a field in West Virginia, Morton ended up in Pittsburgh in an orphanage. Then another one in New York. Until finally, as a teenager, was adopted by Reverend Hugh Morton, who was assigned to the First Baptist Church in Keene.
Morton settled into Keene, playing football for and graduating from Keene High School. He tried college, both on the West Coast and at Keene State College, but after five years, decided to drop out.
School wasn’t for him. He was hung up on being a painter, and he had a classmate from Keene High who could help. He reached out to Richard Whitney, who was starting to make a name for himself.
“He studied with me for several years,” says Whitney, who has gone on to paint portraits of New Hampshire officials, some of which hang in the Statehouse.
Morton and his mentor would spend days together painting landscape around the Monadnock region, or he would help block out portraits for Whitney.
“Then the story line thickens a little,” says Morton with a chuckle.
In the early 1980s, Morton found himself with two kids and no money. He was crashing on a couch in a studio space he rented from Whitney.
“I went down to Boston and got in with some people, and next thing you know I was selling cocaine and making a lot of money. And then, of course, I got busted.”
In 1984, Morton was sentenced to three-and-a-half years in the men’s prison in Concord.
“I thought that was extreme,” remembers Whitney. “He’s not a violent criminal, he’s not a criminal at all.”
Shortly after arriving at the prison, Morton says he ran into a warden who would change his life, a head sergeant named Chris Metalious.
“And of course his mother was Grace Metalious, who wrote Peyton Place,” the 1956 novel that ranks as one of the most scandalous books in New Hampshire history.
Chris Metalious took an interest in Morton and his talents as an artist.
“I think he had an inner soul for me, knowing that I was this type of person,” says Morton.
Metalious would pull some strings on Morton’s behalf, and within a few months, he was given permission to have oil paints, brushes and canvases in his cell.
“Most guys just want to come in, do their time and get out,” remembers Metalious, who now lives in Florida. “They don’t want to better themselves, take the time to see other options. And Danny was one that had a lot of talent and saw options for when he was released.”
During the next three years, Morton painted an estimated 200 works inside the prison walls, capturing the boredom, rituals and characters of the facility.
“One thing that made it easy for me was if you painted someone’s portrait, they are going to be your friend. So it was a good defense.”
Word got around about the prison painter, and soon the director of the state prison system at the time, Commissioner Ron Powell, had an idea.
“Commissioner Powell came up and taps me on the shoulder on the second floor and said, ‘would you like to have a show at the statehouse?’ I said sure,” says Morton.
Powell’s idea was to have an exhibition inside the Executive Council chamber that would roughly coincide with Morton’s release from prison.
On May 25, 1998, two dozen or so of Morton’s paintings were displayed on easels inside the Statehouse. The governor at the time, John H. Sununu, remembers getting a sneak preview of the works.
“Actually, I like that realistic style of painting. The artist takes it almost to photograph stage. I do like that,” says Sununu.
When the reception started, there’s Morton in a suit and tie, the model inmate, fully reformed.
Politicians mingle around, looking at his work, while reporters and TV crews captured the scene.
“One of the reporters from the Boston Globe said, ‘you know, they are using you.’ Well I said, ‘it’s okay, I’m using them too,’” says Morton.
The story that appeared the next day in The Boston Globe, under the headline “Prison life provides opportunity for artist,” was penned by Laurie Storey.
More than 30 years later, Storey (now Storey-Manseau), says she still remembers covering Morton’s exhibition.
“There are those stories that stick with you. They almost stick on you,” says Storey-Manseau. “Danny was a story that was...he was just a positive being, I think that’s why it stuck, he was so positive. And so happy. Happy is the best word I can use.”
The exhibition was a hit. People loved the paintings, they loved Morton’s story.
His mentor, Richard Whitney, remembers nudging state officials to buy some of them.
“The compositions were terrific, they were just a remarkable series of paintings. And I thought the state should have them somewhere,” says Whitney.
The state used an arts fund to buy six of Morton’s prison paintings for a total of $18,000, a paycheck that would jumpstart his life.
“I think then [the paintings] were displayed back at the prison,” recalls Sununu.
All six of the works, in fact, still hang inside the jail today; three are in the parole board hearing room.
All because he got special permission to paint as an inmate.
“That’s how I roll,” says Morton with a laugh.
Since his release from prison, he’s made a living as an artist, splitting his time between Hawaii, where a sister of his ended up, and Florida. But every summer, he still comes back to the Lakes Region.
That’s how one of his landscape paintings ended up in a gallery in Meredith, the painting that got stolen earlier this year.
That painting is still missing.
But bad luck, and the occasional bad choice, none of it seems to dent Danny Morton.
“I have no complaints about my life. I figured, I’ve been blessed. I’ve always felt that way.”