Wednesday, September 14, 2011
There is just no way, even after twenty years of knowing and dealing with Leon, to begin explaining him. But since he is the most successful artist in the Brazos Valley, I guess I should try. Leom and I have been good friends for many years, and long before he took his art seriously. For nearly three decades, I have known him as an extremely creative person, one heck of storyteller, and one of the best antique pickers I have ever known...
He came to my art studio after he came to Navasota almost thirty years ago, and explained he was an artist and wanted to pursue an art career, and I took an interest in him and encouraged him. At the time another black artist, David Woods was setting the brush on fire with his black genre art, and I knew there was room for more. Then later one day I met him walking down the street, (he never drives, never had a car, ever) and he was carrying some antique fire buckets he wanted to sell. He was not painting, but had found he could make out better as an antique "picker." I purchased quite a bit from him over the years, always talking about his talent, and him pretty much ignoring my advice.
Now it is the other way around.
Then around twenty years ago another artist, Junior Tenneyson came up with an idea that inspired Leon and soon he was exhibiting in Bryan and even Dallas. You may wonder what inspires him, and it is simple: making money. His plack and white ink drawings sold pretty well... better than me for sure. Then he got bored with it and set aside painting for several years and went back to picking. When his daughter Molly, whom I have known since she was a little monkey that would climb me like a tree and take off my glasses, began to paint several years ago, he picked it up again. Especially when he saw how well people recieved her work. Leon has always loved the action of trading. And he responds to friendly competition too.
In the past few years, no kidding, he and Molly have painted and SOLD hundreds and hundreds, maybe a thousand paintings. She has pretty much moved on, but Leon has become a local, even a statewide phenomenon. TV interviews, magazine covers, articles... and more money and attention than he ever dreamed of.
He and Molly began by setting up outside of Tejas Antiques, and selling to tourists passing through. They painted on boards, doors, even over other artworks. Dwayne Garner gave him a home inside the place eventually, and since then Leon has eclipsed the rest of the shop. People love his paintings and buy them by the carload. He goes to art shows all over Texas and sells out. Important collectors make their way to Navasota and look wantingly up and down the street for him. They hardly ever leave empty-handed.
Leon has taught us a lot. He did all of this without advertising, or a website, even a business card. He never looked to the chamber of commerce or the art club or anybody for help. Yet he has created the single most successful marketing campaign Navasota or any town has ever seen. He smiles, talks about his life, and paints like crazy. He is always courteous and friendly. His countenance is infectious. He may be the most prolific artist Texas has ever produced. In the process, his art has become a true economic stimulator for Navasota, Texas.
Leon has proved that "word of mouth" is the very best form of advertising; That people buy when you get their attention, and are worthy of it. That sometimes the art is just what people take home as a souvenir from a cherished acquaintance.
Leon has also re-enacted an old quotation of Picasso's...
Walter Foster once publicly confronted Pablo Picasso about the claims by others that he was the greatest artist in the world. Foster wanted to know, did he consider himself such? Picasso humbly negated such talk, and I paraphrase: "When I consider myself and the great artists of the world, such as Titian, Giotto, and Rembrandt, I do not consider myself great in that sense, but I am merely and entertainer, who has, to my best ability, exploited the frivolity and cupidity of my contemporaries. Although mine is a bitter confession, (to some admirers who might hear this) it never-the-less has the merit of being sincere."
Leon has had a ball. He has never gotten all wrapped up in art talk or concern about materials or framing or anything. His may be the most pure, unpretentious art I have seen made. He gets a thought, and within hours it is drying in the sun. His works are composed without much research or visual resources, and he depends a great deal on his imagination and his personal experience. If he finds an old closet door, or a canvas screen, he paints on it. One day he is painting bluesmen, the next cowboys and indians. One day missions, the next day slaves in bondage. He does whatever appeals to him, unrestrained by the academic structure of design, drawing, or proportion. Or "good taste." If his colors seem garish and his subjects edgy, then too bad. That's what he did that day, no apologies. The off-the-wallness of his work seems to be part of the charm. He makes no pretense about what he makes or what it might be worth.
He often walks into my art gallery, sincerely wanting to help me, and suggests if I really wanted to make some money, I should buy some of his and double the prices...
And he is right!