Her paintings were slashed. But her hope was restored.

Michelle Johnson Major wants you to see her face. She wants you to know her name. She wants to show you her paintings.

She is a high school teacher, a talented artist, a beautiful woman. And she's not afraid or ashamed, like so many battered women, to speak out.

A year after her storybook wedding on the shore of a lake, her husband slashed 94 pieces of her artwork and then turned on Michelle, punching her in the face and nearly strangling her.

Instead of throwing away 12 years of work, she is using those damaged paintings to speak out against abuse, in North Carolina and around the country. Because only if women speak out, Michelle believes, will the violence in our homes be stopped.

Sixty-seven people in North Carolina died last year from domestic violence, seven in Mecklenburg County, according to the N.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence. There were nearly 35,000 domestic violence-related calls to police in Mecklenburg alone. Those were the reported cases. The National Institute of Justice says 73 percent of domestic assaults go unreported.

This is one woman's story, a journey from hope to despair and back again to hope, corroborated by court documents and medical records. Michelle said she met her ex-husband in church, of all places, at a candlelight service on Christmas Eve 2006.

A friend told her about a new tenor in the choir. You've got to meet him! He's so nice.

He towered a foot above Michelle, 6 feet 4 inches tall, ruggedly handsome with dark brown hair and hazel eyes.

What do you do? she remembers him asking.

She showed him a photograph on her cell phone of her most recent painting. He showed it to other choir members. Did you know she could do this? It was a lifelike black and white acrylic of singer-songwriter John Popper, his hands on a microphone, his mouth belting out a blues tune.

Michelle and the newcomer talked that night at church for the longest time. He seemed to hang on her every word, looking in her eyes as she spoke.

She thought she had met the most wonderful man.

How did a college-educated woman become a victim? she now wonders. "It just didn't happen overnight. It was like a slow whittling away of your self worth until you've become totally dependent on your abuser. It's like a form of brainwash."

Michelle asked that the newspaper not publish her ex-husband's name. She said she's afraid that identifying him would anger him, and she knows what he's capable of when he's angry.

'You're so beautiful'

Their first few months together, he left notes on her car: "I'm thinking of you." He complimented her: "You're so beautiful." He texted her: "Good morning!"

Michelle's happiness showed in her paintings: Women with flowing, dancing bodies. Colorful butterflies.

She was 38 and divorced, and enjoyed the attention. She didn't know it then, but abusers often come on strong and check up on their partners. They're trying to control them.

Michelle said he told her he was starting over. He had spent time in jail in Georgia, but he said he was falsely accused of assault by an ex-girlfriend. He said he moved to the foothills of North Carolina to be near his family. He enrolled in community college and found a job in construction.

He seemed so sincere that Michelle glossed over the part about jail, accepting his version of events. Surely the charge couldn't be true.

Six months after they met, on July 27, 2007, she married him.

Increasingly volatile

By November, she was pregnant and the slow whittling of her self-worth began.

During pregnancy, the Mayo Clinic says, domestic violence sometimes starts or increases. As many as 8 percent of pregnant women - 320,000 - are assaulted each year, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says. The baby is a threat to the man. He no longer is the center of attention.

Michelle said her husband became increasingly unpredictable and volatile. They fought. He called her "fat" and "stupid" and worse. Always followed by apologies.

She forgave him in the beginning because most of the time, he was still so good to her. She loved that about him. Every night before he went to bed, he fixed her cereal for the next morning, and left a snack for her lunch and a note:

"Make sure you eat well."

One morning after a heated fight, she went into labor five weeks early.

'I have to get out'

After her daughter was born June 30, 2008, Michelle's art turned dark and frightening.

She painted three heads shaped like mirrors, with sunken eyes and open mouths. She titled the painting, "Who will she reflect?"

She was worried about her daughter.

Michelle said she tried several times to leave him, but he begged and pleaded, promised and threatened, and she always ended up back home. A battered woman is likely to try to flee as many as seven times, studies show, before she makes a permanent break.

One night in August 2008, Michelle said, he bit her leg and choked her until the blood vessels around her eyes broke.

She waited to sneak out until morning while he was sleeping. As usual, he called and called, and they talked, and he said he had something to show her.

The most dangerous time for a battered woman, studies show, is when she tries to leave.

All through the apartment, Michelle's art work lay in tatters. The picture of John Popper. Her portrait of Marilyn Monroe. Her paintings of women dancing. Slashed.

They argued. He backhanded her to the floor, she said, and the last thing she remembers is his hands around her throat.

A portrait of abuse

The police caught him eight hours later.

He pleaded guilty to assault by strangulation and served 28 days in jail.

Michelle went into hiding, living with a couple in a nearby town. Her art from the next few months is ugly, tortured. She painted a self-portrait with burst blood vessels around her eyes, lips broken, nose bleeding.

The paintings shocked the couple she lived with. "We saw a lot of anguish, hurt, fear," the husband said. "Her paintings seemed to say, 'The world is ending on me.'"

Michelle's metamorphosis

After a few months, the wife suggested Michelle paint about her hopes instead of her fears.

As Michelle painted more optimistically, she began to live more optimistically.

"Slowly the colors started changing in her pictures," the husband said. "It was like a rebirth."

Michelle looked through her art one day and saw the change for herself - and in herself.

"I knew there was something in my artwork that people needed to see," she said. Art helped her heal, and she thought it could help others. In January 2009, she built a Web site ( www.beavoicearts.com) and contacted domestic violence advocates.

The N.C. Coalition against Domestic Violence published Michelle's story in its newsletter. Since then, she has shown her art in several N.C. towns. She was keynote speaker at a workshop at Fort Hood, Texas, and will be part of Amnesty International's Human Rights Art Festival in Maryland in April. She is the master artist for an International Domestic Violence Mural.

She is no longer a victim. She is a survivor.

"When I speak out," Michelle said, "it gives other women a helping hand to say it happened to me, too. When you can say it out loud, when you can tell your story, that's when it starts to heal. With art, that's how I tell my story."

A new purpose

Her ex-husband is in prison for violating probation after testing positive for cocaine and marijuana in 2009. He is scheduled to be released May 5.

Then what?

"A lot of people say you need to move, you need to hide," Michelle said. "He controlled me too long in our marriage. I'm not going to let him control me after the marriage is over."

Wherever she is, Michelle said, she will continue to advocate against domestic violence.

"I really believe it's my purpose," she said. "I can look back on this whole experience and say I'm thankful it happened to me. I really can. I know that I'll never be victimized by anything again."

Michelle believes she is stronger because of what endured. If not for that, she might never have found her voice.

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