Juanita Leonard's Beautiful World

Brushes sit at the ready for artist Juanita Leonard at her home in Montgomery, La., on March 26, 2007. Leonard, a Louisiana folk artist, is gaining national attention. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
AP Photo
Travelers in the piney woods of central Louisiana can pass through the tiny town of Montgomery almost without noticing it. It's little more than a couple of hardware stores, a bank and a library along the railroad tracks.

But just outside of town is the home of Juanita Leonard – and it's hard to miss.

Brightly painted flowers adorn the base of the two doublewide house trailers sitting haphazardly beside the road. Carved totem poles crowd the yard; fanciful creatures stand in the grass; a tall fence is ablaze with radiant reds, blues, purples, greens. And the centerpiece of the tableau is the little handmade church built by Leonard and her daughter.

2 "It catches people's eyes," Leonard said. "Lots of times people just stop and want to see what's going on."

Leonard, a single, fortysomething-ish mother with a ready smile and a down-home habit of answering questions with "yes, ma'am" and "no, ma'am," is an up-and-coming artist whose work on black life in the rural South is being discovered around the country.

For a woman who once gave away paintings and considered a $10 sale cause for celebration, times are changing. At the several galleries that represent her, prices run as high as $500 for her work.

"I think she's on the brink of a big breakthrough," said Roff Graves, owner of Graves Country Gallery in Lodi, Calif., which represents Leonard.

Since she first picked up a paint brush at 16 and beautified the family's rusty old car with flowers and birds, Leonard has created art on every surface that could take an image, from the walls, ceilings and floors of her house to her kitchen appliances and even her furniture.

Leonard and her 17-year-old daughter, Cheekee, live amid scenes of people picking cotton, doing laundry, washing babies, going to church -- and chickens. There are big chickens, little chickens, chickens of all colors, chickens in groups, chickens pulling wagons, chickens being fed by women - even chickens being fed by angels.

"I'm just a country girl. I grew up on a farm and lived out here in this country and this little country town all my life," said Leonard. "And I just love my chickens."

3Leonard's paintings are reminiscent of those of Clementine Hunter, often referred to as "the black Grandma Moses." Hunter, who died in 1988 at 101, painted colorful scenes of plantation life in Louisiana. Her subjects included everyday activities such as doing laundry, farming, celebrations and church events.

Both painters come from similar backgrounds -- black rural Louisiana, with its poverty, hard work and religion. Leonard, one of 13 children, grew up on a farm in Natchitoches Parish. Her father, who farmed and preached, died when she was seven.

"All Mama knew to do was pick cotton, so that's what we did," Leonard said. "We had to do whatever we could do to help Mama pay the bills."

For her paintings, Leonard uses plywood, recycled wood paneling, cabinet doors, scrap wood. The size and shape vary. "I never learned how to paint or draw," she said. "Sometimes, I don't even know what I'm going to paint until I start."

Among the vivid subjects is "Mama" picking cotton and going to church and Leonard's father on his tractor.

"I just paint black people doing the things I know," she said.

Once known as primitive art and outsider art, the genre is now called "self-taught," said David Houston, chief curator of the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans.

"By the 1990s, that type of art was so well known and so popular the artists were no longer outsiders," Houston said. Once little known to mainstream art lovers, the genre has become more widely sought by collectors.

Leonard has a different way of describing her art. She calls it a "blessing from God."

"I look around and everything is so pretty, so wonderful," Leonard said. "I thank God for it and try to put a little bit of it down for other people to have. When people like it, that's even better. It makes me so proud."