Things Can Get Weird Around Here

Monday, December 3, 2012

Michael Bell Paints Scars of a Real Mob Wife

Celebrity Artist, Michael Bell

Toni Marie Ricci is writing a soon to be published book, Scars of a Real Mob Wife, in which she discusses her life and her marriage to Michael DiLeonardo aka “Mickey Scars.” Toni Marie has given viewers of “I Married A Mobster,” a brief glimpse into her marriage to the Gambino capo, who turned informant. I learned that she is collaborating with artist, Michael Bell, who is creating seven detailed paintings depicting her story which will not only be included in the book, but shown in a public exhibit at a yet to be named gallery. Two of the paintings have been completed and Mr. Bell has graciously agreed to be interviewed for our blog about this fascinating series of works, which will most definitely enrich an already very compelling story.

Hi Michael, it’s Chiara from mobwives.blogspot, and I want to thank you for agreeing to do this interview. How are you?

I'm well Chiara and it's my pleasure.

I'd like to begin with some background information about you. Can you tell me a little about yourself as an artist, and your career?

I won my first art show at the age of 5.  My Grandmother is the one who put the first paintbrush in my hand.  She’s a self-taught artist from Lyndhurst, NJ who taught herself how to paint with oils despite having no formal education.  That’s always amazed me to this day.  My parents were also extremely supportive of my art, entering me in shows ever since I can remember.  I think my mother’s also a “closet artist” because she can draw pretty well too.

As for my Art Career, I believe the most important job for an Artist is “to draw a line from your life to your art that is straight and clear.”  For me, painting early on became a positive way for me to give form and meaning to some very difficult life experiences…as a way to do something “constructive” as opposed to “destructive” with what life threw my way.  

As a kid, I grew up on Mob Culture, with movies like the Godfather, the Pope of Greenwich Village, Goodfellas.  I also had an “Uncle” on my mother’s side, her first cousin I believe, that served 20 years in Trenton State Prison for a contract killing, only to be found shot to death in his apartment when he was paroled, so I’m also familiar with “the life.”  I would later do some portraits of the late John Gotti for his family, which brought attention to my work (some positive, some negative), but attention nevertheless…which led to more commissioned portraits for a lot of interesting people.  Here’s a few: Georgia Durante, who was once one of the most photographed models in the country turned wheel woman for the Mob back in the 70’s turned Hollywood Stuntwoman; Porn Stars (that’s a conversation for another day); then came “the Sopranos”, doing portraits for stars like Joseph R. Gannascoli (Vito) to John Fiore (Gigi), Joe Pantoliano (Ralphie), Tony Sirico (Paulie Walnuts), Sofia Milos (also of CSI:Miami), Clem Caserta of  “A Bronx Tale”, Dominic Capone (Al Capone’s Great Nephew) and now Toni Marie Ricci…my client list goes on and on much like that…

There are a lot of stories within stories within my career too since, as an artist, my process is very much like the “method acting” process made famous by actors such as Mickey Rourke and Robert DeNiro.  I get to know my subjects on a deep personal level, and more often than not we become friends.  We end up doing gigs together, get together on holidays, do things for one time, when I was in Chicago -- picture being taken out to dinner with a Judge, two Actors, the Chief of Police and three Mob guys…welcome to my world!  Then 9/11 hit.  It changed the art world forever, as nobody – especially not artists – were prepared to deal with such a tragedy and give it form or meaningful expression.  I remember being in Baltimore when it happened…driving to my Studio that morning and it was a ghost town.  Not a car on the road.  I knew something incomprehensible had to have happened, I just didn’t know the magnitude -- and then I got a call from Joey G (Joseph R. Gannscoli from the Sopranos).  We were scheduled to do an appearance at the 3rd Ave Festival in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn together at his restaurant “Soup as Art” that month and do autograph signings.  He was going to sign pictures and I was going to sign prints of my art that I created of him and our Sopranos pals.  He was devastated.  Told me he lost half his neighborhood.  Robert Cordice and the FDNY’s Squad 1 came up in the conversation, as did Father Mychal – 9/11’s first official casualty, which was coincidentally my wife’s childhood Priest.  Robert’s mother also worked with my wife’s best friend at Merrill Lynch down in the Financial District.  I ended up pulling an all-nighter and painted Robert’s portrait and sent it up to Joe along with some other Sopranos prints I did for their fundraiser in Staten Island for Squad 1, and a second one at Rascal’s Comedy Club in West Orange, NJ where Kevin James from “King of Queens” and Sopranos Steve Schirripa auctioned off a pastel piece I did of him and Joe to help raise thousands for some of the families of fallen heroes.

I guess, because of who my clientele are, people then started referring to me as “Celebrity Artist Michael Bell”, Mob Artist Michael Bell even…an on and on that went, but it also helped me develop a niche in an Art Market so saturated with sameness.  You could say that both my work and who I’ve painted for has helped separate me from the pack of other artists of my generation.

How long have you known Toni Marie?  

For only about 4 or 5 months.  I Re-Tweeted a link to a great interview Mickey Rourke did on James Lipton’s “Inside the Actor’s Studio” that a friend sent me and I tagged Mickey in the tweet.  Toni Marie happened to see my Re-Tweet, knew Mickey personally and reached out to me, asking how I knew him.  So, I shared an old charcoal piece I did for Mickey years ago with her: "Black and White Gallery"along with a link to a new thematic series I’m working on called “Carnevale Italiano” which is a prequel painting series to my “Ticket to Ride” painting series that I ended up writing a screenplay about.  I told her how I’ve been actively seeking Producers for the project.  This brought up the conversation surrounding her book and life story.  Long story short, we hit it off, found we had a lot of synchronistic coincidences surrounding both our lives and she connected to my style of work.  Before we knew it, we also realized we had A LOT of friends in common!  

I told her I thought there was incredible depth to her story and how courageous she was to go against her ex-husband and testify along with her son FOR John Gotti Jr. at his last trial.  She’s a standup gal and went against the grain.  I like that.  My whole career has been like that.  Most artists go the traditional gallery route, schlocking their wares from small gallery to small gallery in hopes that a “biggie” will take notice and sign them on to their stable of artists and give them a show.  All this in hopes of getting their name out there so they can start generating more sales and commission work through the gallery’s contact lists.  As for me, I took a more “build it and they’ll come” approach, so to speak.  I’ve been very lucky, and the harder I’ve worked the luckier I’ve become.  It’s catapulted my career to a Celebrity status and like Frankie said, I did it MY WAY, not resigning my fate to some gallery owner that may or may not have my best interests at heart when promoting my name and my work.

Michael in his studio

How did the idea for this collaboration of art and book come about?

It was a very interesting concept from the start, and I’m not sure if it has ever been done before but it’s definitely original from our vantage point.  Initially, my thoughts were for the paintings to say what words fail to accurately describe about her life story.  Pictures, for me, have a magical power and can tap into emotions that sometimes words are unable to.  I call it putting “layers of meaning” into my work through the accumulation of experiences, both behind the easel and behind the scenes as I get to know my subjects on a deeply personal level.  It’s like, have you ever met someone for the first time and their face changes as you get to know them?  It’s their true personality coming to the surface.  And while I spend a lot of time on the surface of each painting, it’s the “inside” of my subjects that I’m really after.  That’s why photographs wouldn’t do her story justice.  Her story is so complex and has so many layers to it, which is exactly why painting them out makes more sense.  It does her story more justice.  A painting is also a beautiful way to acknowledge and immortalize someone that deserves to be remembered.   I told her I thought these paintings could serve as a way of “healing” her wounds/scars if you will, that run so deep.

I’ve also collaborated on projects with numerous other artists, so I’m comfortable with collaborations. I’ve actually done some pure collaboration art shows for years with a well-known Washington D.C. based artist, Michael Sprouse and in 2012 I began I’ve collaborating with artist friend Eric Fischl to create meaningful projects for Eric’s AMERICA: NOW AND HERE nationwide movement for artists, playwrights and musicians.  This past month I also created a huge collaboration painting of Amanda Todd, the Vancouver teen who sadly committed suicide last month after years of bullying.  I created this work of art with kids in a high school from a National Art Honor Society that I sponsor as a gift for Todd’s mother Carol.  We also documented it as a youtube video at   

I guess this, and Toni Marie’s project are all about the activist in me.

How did you arrive at the number of paintings that would be done? Is it based on the chapters of her book, are the paintings chronological, or based on your artistic interpretation of her story?

It is an interesting collision of art, literature, pop culture and the Mob.  It’s not based on Chapters in her book, but actually from a conversation I had with Toni Marie about her ex-husband’s obsession with “A Clockwork Orange.”  A Clockwork Orange (the book) is broken down into Three Acts: Part I (Chapters 1 – 7, On the Streets), Part II (Chapters 1 – 7, In Prison & Under Experimental Testing) and Part III (1 – 7, Back out in Society)…very symbolic of Christ’s 1) dying; 2) is buried; and 3) on the 3rd day is resurrected where the main character 1) falls from grace; 2) is imprisoned and 3) re-emerges and returns to society as a reformed version of his former self leading a new life – which strangely enough seems A LOT like life imitating art.  Their relationship died, was buried, was dug back up again in court after he entered the witness protection program and he re-emerges as “someone else” - someplace else.  So, this is how I came up with the idea of their being 7 works.  I also felt it important to do these works on paper, even though most of my series work in the past has been done on canvas, only because a lot of her life was delved through in court transcripts, read about in the newspapers, and now taking form in a book.  So, I felt paper was the appropriate vehicle for the paintings to take shape on.  There’s also that “7 Deadly Sins” connotation that could be inferred behind each work as well -- if you examine each work really closely and dive even deeper.

Have you actually read her book or are the paintings based on your conversations with her about her life?

No, just read a glimpse, a synopsis if you will, and she allowed me into her private world by sharing diary entries from that time period.  The paintings are really more about my own creative interpretations of our private conversations and time we’ve spent together discussing the project.  

The process for me started with my imagining some “visuals” for 7 paintings that would all tie together like a loose narrative about her life, not about her ex, and not about glorifying the Mob at all, which is a common misconception with my work, but more or less a glimpse for the public behind the curtains of what she’s been through ‘physically and emotionally’… seen through the eyes of someone “walking a mile, painting by painting, in her shoes” so to speak…like a method actor, as I mentioned earlier.  For me the process is just as important as the final product.  It’s what I get to learn about my subjects as I get to know them and uncover new ways to reveal their secrets visually in appealing ways that will engage the viewer.

There seems to be so much detail in each of the two paintings we have seen so far and the more I study them the more I discover. Will the book include any of your personal thoughts and ideas that went into creating each painting?

Each painting is meant to deliver a powerful message on its own, but when placed in a particular viewing order within the entire collection, the series tells a much larger tale – one of triumph and overcoming life’s hand that’s been dealt.  They also take things to the Nth degree – each work amped up with car bomb explosions, dead bodies and haunting ghost-like images hidden in smoke and shadows, underhanded deals being made in every dark corner, trials peppered with media frenzies, and authentic immortalizations of the repercussions of our actions against the backdrop of New York City.  

I’m not sure whether her book will include any of my personal thoughts or not.  We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it, but if it’s appropriate for the book and if it fits with the overall message she’s looking to share with the world through the book, then I’m game.

We’ve also been discussing the possibility of doing a Coffee Table Art Book featuring each painting, a detail view, and a reveal of the “behind the scenes” thoughts and process behind each painting, what everything means in each of the works, and pages from my sketchbook visual journal and from Toni Marie’s diary to place the viewer in our shoes…take them along for the ride so to speak, painting by painting as the works evolve and eventually the series is completed.

Really? I think that's a great idea. I would be very interested in a book that delves into all of that. I am very curious about all the details in the two paintings I've seen and what inspired them. Every time I look at one of them I see something I missed before.

Painting #1

Can you tell us something about what you tried to capture in the first and second paintings?

The first painting I think of as “the book cover” so to speak…it’s “the movie poster”…the image that poses all questions to the viewer that each of the following six works will have to try and break down to answer.  In Painting 1 Toni Marie is at her second wedding, getting married to her current husband.  The only resources I had for this work was her wedding photo and newspapers chronicling events leading to her ex-husband’s decision to flip.  So, I added in the newspaper clippings and placed them in frames behind her, with a flock of blackbirds flying out from her former residence, symbolic of reincarnation.  Her husband is looking down the road ahead while she’s actually looking back on everything that led up to this very moment.  There’s also lots of subtle details you have to look closely for that put the pieces together.  It’s a very complex first work, because the details surrounding her life to that point were equally as complex, like the rosary and crucifix in her hand, a dead body laying near the gutter of an old-time Brooklyn, the Verrazano Bridge racing through the background, through their lives that also connects Brooklyn to Staten Island – her past life to her current…there’s lots built into work 1, let’s just leave it at that.  I could go on and on.

Painting #2

In Painting 2 I wanted to take the viewer back to her childhood.  When life was pure, there she is at her Communion, and then just above her, symbolic of Venus rising from the ashes is her getting married to her first husband, while dancing a Father and Daughter dance at her first wedding.  All this juxtaposed against a car bomb exploding, which was actually the car bomb that killed her Uncle, Frank DeCicco back in 1986 – a bomb meant for John Gotti, Sr.  All this religion against all this destruction, the car bomb I thought was also symbolic of her relationship with her first husband, based on her accounts of it to me.  Explosive, destructive, damaging to everyone in it’s path.  I initially painted her son riding a bike in the work, but painted it out later and instead put a pool of blood leaking from the streets down below to make the young version of Toni Marie in her communion dress standing in it as an added symbolic gesture.  I also hid screaming faces and demons in the smoke, because…well, why not? 

Toni Marie with Michael Bell

Has Toni Marie had any input at all into what subjects will or won’t be included in the paintings? For example, I noticed, maybe incorrectly, that while there are references to Michael DiLeonardo, his likeness doesn’t seem to appear in either painting.

Toni Marie’s a one of a kind!  She’s a remarkable woman, extremely open to my own interpretations and ideas and doesn’t sideline me or my talent by telling me what should or shouldn’t be in the works.  From one professional to another I LOVE THAT!  She’s trusting me to do my job, get to know her well enough to know what to put and what not to put before it’s ever even an issue but I do greatly value her feedback from painting to painting.  I’ll send her a pic in progress so she can see if our thoughts are on the same page, and thus far I’m on the money and will continue to be.  

And no, you’re correct, there are references to her ex, but no likenesses will ever show up.  He’s not in her life anymore.  She’ll never see him again - literally, so why put him in the paintings and reveal anything different than what her reality is.  Plus I don’t know him, never knew him, so I wouldn’t feel comfortable painting him.  

How long has it taken to complete one painting and how many of the paintings have you completed so far?

About two weeks per work total hours-wise.  I’m projecting it will take about 4 months overall to complete the entire series.  But who knows, I tend to spend a lot of hours on something once I start it, so it could be sooner.  I’ve completed two thus far and am working on Painting 3 in studio now, which I hope to have finished before Christmas.    

Michael with Mob Wives

Has it been decided if the art exhibit will take place before or after the book is released or in conjunction with that event? 

All this is still to be determined.  We are actively seeking the right Solo Exhibition for the entire series, which could run in conjunction with her book release, or with the coffee table art book we talked about, but all this depends on finding the right gallery, the right publisher, and so forth.

Right now I’m just focusing on the work.  Like I said earlier, I usually just build it and they come, so I’m not worried about that.  The works will make any gallery A LOT of money, and get that gallery tons of exposure, so who wouldn’t want to exhibit them.  After all, I just finished the first Painting Unveiling on camera for Season 3 of MobWives.  The press is gonna be all over that once it airs.  I will say this, I’ll probably book a Solo Exhibition with a gallery or contemporary art museum that reaches out to me from an authentic standpoint of truly believing in “the work” BEFORE it’s aired on television across the country.  This way I’ll know they’re for real too, and not just jumping on the bandwagon because my work is on TV.

What do you plan to do with all the paintings after the exhibit?

Not a thing, because they’ll all be sold – unless it’s acquired by a museum or a private collector and becomes a traveling show.  I do plan on doing a number of appearances with Toni Marie and I’m sure we’ll be doing some print signings and book signings together.  Then, I’ll be on to my next exciting series…

That's all I have for today Michael. I appreciate your taking the time to talk to me. Hope to talk to you again one day.

Good bye Chiara, it was a pleasure talking with you.

I have to say this was a very interesting and enjoyable interview. I am glad Michael provided some explanation as to the details in the two paintings because every time I look at them I seem to see more, but I also feel like I am missing a lot. I hope you will take the time to visit Michael's website and look at his other paintings. As for me, I am dying to see what he is going to do with the other five paintings for Toni Marie's book and the painting he will unveil for season three of Mob Wives!

Picture credit: Michael Bell
Follow him on Twitter @mbellart and Toni Marie @ToniMarieRicci


  1. I think his paintings capture Toni's story to the tee....very nice how he blended important elements of her life into these paintings. I looked at his gallery and his painting "Hell" with the firefighters was my favorite...very moving!

  2. wow, book and art, thats one collection,....i want


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