ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — In a federal penitentiary in Pennsylvania, Eric Christo Martinez began breaking free, not with shovels and shanks but with paintbrushes and canvas.

He didn't know he could paint before he went to prison. Not like that. His art exceeded the usual raw jailhouse panos of blue-black curvy women and smile-now-cry-later clowns. It was more provocative, more expressive; his technique and emotion so real and so powerful that sometimes it took people's breath away.

People like Peter Eller.

The well-known Albuquerque art dealer and appraiser spotted a painting by Martinez called "The Passion of Christo" in an exhibit last March at the 5G Gallery in the city's Sawmill-Wells Park neighborhood.

"Here was this drop-dead fantastic painting, and I'm asking, 'Who is this guy?'?" Eller said as the three of us chatted at Kosmos, a cafe adjoining the gallery. "What drew me to it in the first place is its sublime, deep and almost mystical Christology, the sense of passion, rebirth and transcendence very much reminiscent of Spanish paintings of the 17th century and one of my favorite Spanish painters, Ribera.

"It is not only a good painting, superbly well executed, but it has a depth of passion and commitment — of soul, if you will — rarely seen in contemporary work."

Put in a less arty way, Martinez, he said, is as good or better than any other living artist.

So taken was Eller with the painting — a contemplative self-portrait of Martinez as Christ, captive and artist — that Eller offered to buy it, not for himself but as a gift to the Albuquerque Museum.

"I have donated other pieces to the museum, but not like this," Eller said. "Here, there was no attempt to possess the painting myself but to share it with the public."

The painting, though, wasn't for sale.

It was the first of Martinez's works to be featured in an art show since his release from prison last September, the first self-portrait to capture what he felt about himself, his passion for art and the pathos of spending nearly a decade behind bars for packing two firearms while selling cocaine to an undercover cop.

The painting was Martinez breaking free. But he wasn't ready to free himself of it.

"It was me," he said.

Prison wasn't him, or so those who knew him thought. He grew up in an affluent part of Albuquerque, the oldest of three boys. His criminal record had been clean save for one misdemeanor and some traffic tickets.

"I had such an entrepreneurial spirit," he said. "But I found the wrong way to make money."

He was arrested in 2002 and sentenced to 10 years in prison, a stiff penalty for a first-time offender but not an unexpected one under the less merciful federal court system.

He was 22.

Prison, they say, kills the soul of those inside who just kill time, so Martinez tried to keep himself busy by doodling, then drawing, then tattooing, his paint made of melted chess pieces and baby oil, his needles crafted from guitar string and the tiny metal motor parts of cassette tape players, his canvas made of flesh.

Martinez was bounced around to different federal penitentiaries. In a facility in Pennsylvania, he met inmate Hendrick Gil, an artist of some repute from the Dominican Republic and the convicted head of a New York-based cocaine ring.

"I saw him painting one day in the hobby shop, and my jaw dropped, and I said, 'Wow, that's what I want to do,'?" Martinez said. "He taught me what fine arts were about."

Martinez was an excellent student, quickly mastering Gil's techniques of shadow and light, detailed portraiture, bold hues, metaphor and meaning.

Many of Martinez's works, all painted while in prison, reflect captivity and freedom, pain and hope, and those are part of what he calls his "Conviction" portfolio, a play on the word's many meanings.

"My pictures are voice to such struggle but also to the conviction that you can turn things around," he said.

Martinez, now 32, is doing just that.

Eller eventually convinced Martinez to sell him that painting. Then Eller convinced Albuquerque Museum curator Andrew Connors to accept it.

"It is very uncommon for a museum to accept a work of art by an unknown artist," Eller said. "But Andrew was just as enthusiastic about the piece as I was, and it is to his credit that his enthusiasm was enough to convince the museum committee to accept the piece. It is also a credit in the end to Eric's art."

Martinez's piece will be featured in the museum's Recent Acquisitions exhibit, which opened with a reception Sunday.

Since returning to the outside, Martinez has found work as a carpet cleaner and is hoping to obtain his tattoo artist license. He continues in his art endeavors, which include devising a business plan to promote his paintings, his graphic designs and "Conviction," which he envisions as a traveling show that educates those on the outside on what it's like on the inside and those on the inside on what it could be like on the outside.

He is confident he will never be inside again. He is free.

Information from: Albuquerque Journal, http://www.abqjournal.com