From Obscurity to Fame: Folk/Outsider Artist Leonard Jones finds a place in the art world

When you first meet celebrated “folk/outsider artist” Leonard Jones, he does not tell you his work is collected by noted celebrities, a U.S. president and The House of Blues. In fact, nothing about Leonard flaunts his fame.

According to the noted artist’s bio, he chooses to live an uncluttered, off-the-grid lifestyle in a house with no telephone, no electricity, no central heat and no running water. Leonard says he likes to keep his life simple and connected to his roots — the source of inspiration for his paintings.

“Weeding the Garden” uses strong whites and saturated green and reds to bring the subject forward while blues and muted greens and yellows recess and create perspective.

A sharecropper’s son starts life in obscurity

Leonard Jones started life in obscurity on July 8, 1955 in rural Lincolnton, Georgia. Born a sharecropper’s son, he was forced to drop out of school at an early age to earn his living as a laborer.

Life can be hard on the edge of poverty. Yet, Leonard’s paintings—many inspired by his childhood memories—capture a treasure of his happy moments: boys fishing the Savannah River, a pet dog’s play, a mother hen’s cluck to her biddies, the jam session of a guitar and banjo player, the pride of a pie baker, the delight of a gardener gathering ripe tomatoes, and countless other joyful moments of everyday life caught in “freeze frame” on a roofing tin. Leonard’s body of work stands as testament to his belief about the richness of life.

“Duck Hunting” illustrates Jones’ signature use of mostly unblended white for contour lines and reflective surfaces.

Folk artist or “outsider artist”...or both?

Some classify Jones’ paintings as “folk art.” Others add “outsider artist.” Leonard leaves the labeling to others.

Cynthia Smith, owner/operator of Genuine Georgia in Greensboro, notes, “Leonard lacks formal art training, so he does not adhere to conventional art forms. But he instinctively uses ‘folk art’ techniques (bright colors, flattened perspective, immediacy of meaning) to convey memorable moments of everyday life.”

Jeanne Kronsnoble of Main Street Gallery in Clayton remarks, “Leonard’s paintings have the understated simplicity of folk art. And a deeper look reveals a remarkably delicate touch that animates his figures and reflects a winsome perception of people in his world.

“His total lack of classical training leads him to veer away from all traditional art technique. And his self-imposed isolation from the conventional art world keeps his art ‘pure’ and earns him the additional designation of ‘outsider artist.’ Leonard’s work is fresh, unpretentious, compelling and highly personal.”

“Strumming the Blues” is an example from the artist’s musician series.

Noted celebrities, a U.S. president & The House of Blues

Gallery owners appreciate and promote his talent, but Leonard does not seek fame. Often, they have to chase him down to buy his work.

According to Leonard’s artist bio provided by Judy Evans of Connely Gallery in Washington, Georgia, his paintings are collected by such notables as President George W. Bush for the Presidential Library in Texas, the Minnesota Timberwolves of the National Basketball League (NBA), Alice Walton of Walmart, Donna Brazile of CNN and Fox News, and The House of Blues, just to mention a few.

In a rare appearance, Leonard Jones demonstrates his painting technique using broken sticks as brushes.

Living and painting “off the grid”

That same self-imposed isolation carries over into the artist’s studio time. No visitors allowed. He paints in solitude. About his painting medium and tools, Leonard keeps that simple, too. He paints with things other people throw away: a house painter’s leftover oil-based and enamel paints and used brush, old roofing tins, broken sticks, and his hands.

If you could visit, you would find Leonard has no formal studio. He paints on a patch of dirt behind his house. There, he swipes his hands—filled with recycled, oil-based house paint—across a sheet of old roofing tin he lays flat on the ground. Evans notes, “Leonard makes his finer marks with broken sticks and his fingers used as brushes. His tactile style renders unique paint marks unachievable with traditional artist brushes.”

“Fresh Baked Cherry Pie” is one in a series of painting dedicated to women.

Art that conjures up memories

Leonard does not paint from sketches, models or photographs. Images come from his own stored memories. His full range of subjects is too broad to treat here. So I will concentrate on two favorites.

One series features a young boy. You may find him in an orchard dressed in bright, cerulean blue coveralls and a sap green straw hat. Bright red apples scatter across grass and fill a bucket at his feet. In another painting, the boy, still in bright coveralls and now wearing a goldenrod yellow straw hat, walks down a shaded country lane. Black and white puppies play tag around his feet. In yet another painting—“dressed up” in bright blue designer jeans—the boy watches a golf ball roll down a grassy incline toward a flagged hole on an emerald green.

“Tomatoes Fresh Off The Vine” captures a young boy gathering the summer tomato harvest. The color pallet stays true to Jones’ signature use of mostly saturated hues of blue, green, red and yellow strongly accented with white.

Leonard studies the joy of womanhood

Another series of painting celebrates Leonard’s lovely ladies. One is a woman dressed in a long, chartreuse yellow-green dress and sassy, white hat. She sways to a happy dance rhythm, flings her hands gaily in the air, and spins two red and white hula hoops around her waist.

The second is a woman dressed in white. She wears a flashy red and white bandana. With bright blue, gloved hands, she carries a hot, fresh baked cherry pie topped with a lattice-work crust. Straight from the oven, steam rises above the pie in a misty curl.

A third woman is dressed for an afternoon social. Donned in her best red dress, yellow and white head scarf, and blue stone necklace, she puckers her lips in the moment of blowing a cooling breath across her cup of hot coffee. A fourth woman gathers tomatoes. A fifth weeds her garden. A sixth blows soap bubbles through a plastic hoop.

“Dancing with Hula Hoops” celebrates the dancer’s joy of music and motion and feeling pretty in her long dress and fancy hat.

A flying man sketch on a cardboard box

Evans noted, “Leonard started drawing at age two. His first known subject was a flying man sketch on a cardboard box. At age seven, he developed his first ‘All American Folk Talent’ after seeing Sammy Davis, Jr. on his first exposure to television. Leonard wanted to ‘capture Sammy’s soul.’ That ignited a lifelong desire to capture the soul of people, places and events in Leonard’s world.”

“Fishing the Savannah River” illustrates how Leonard uses point- of-view to give his subject a fresh perspective.

“Artist of the Month”

This writer recalls a photo of Leonard Jones outside Genuine Georgia. It is from the gallery’s social media postings and announces him as “Artist of the Month.” He stands in front of the entryway and displays a recent painting of the young boy.

In the painting, the boy holds a fishing pole and fresh caught fish. And the little boy who so long ago “captured the soul” of Sammy Davis, now stands in the photograph, captured in grown-up form — a celebrated artist dedicated to capturing the soul of all he paints. In so doing, Leonard Jones captures and shares his own happy soul. And sharing that soul has made him famous.

Genuine Georgia selects noted artist Leonard Jones as “Artist of the Month.”

This article, by Judi Martha Collins, appeared in our November/December 2020 edition of Lakelife.

Photos provided by Main Street Gallery, Genuine Georgia, Connely Gallery, and Mike's Art Truck.

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