Juanita Leonard lives in central Louisiana, outside the small town of Montgomery (population 795). It is here that she has heard God speak. She says that he has told her to preach, to build a church and to make art.
Leonard, 49, was born in the nearby Huey P. Long Charity Hospital in Alexandria and has lived in the area all her life. She grew up in a family of 13 children. Her father was a preacher and farm worker who died when she was very young. Her mother raised the family with the help of her children.
“My mother never had any kind of job but picking cotton,” Leonard said. “She loved to pick cotton.” As a tribute to her mother’s hard work and sacrifice, Leonard often paints people picking cotton by hand.
As you approach Leonard’s property, you know you have found the home of an artist. Several mobile homes and homemade buildings cluster together. The buildings are covered with Leonard’s brightly colored paintings depicting her memories of farm life and her spiritual journey.
Leonard's only child, Trinicia, 19, (nicknamed Cheekee) lives with her. Leonard was married but divorced when her daughter was five years old. It was a struggle to raise a child by herself, she said. In addition to her daughter, she also helped raise four children of relatives and friends.
Leonard’s artwork is full of vivid colors and joy. Her art covers almost every surface of her two mobile homes, as well as the inside of the church she is building.
Leonard said she began painting at age 17, when she decorated her mother’s car. Her mother approved of this project and also allowed her to paint on the inside walls of their home. However, Leonard said she did not think of selling her artwork until about five or six years ago. Then, with the encouragement of friends, she listed one of her paintings on eBay, starting the bidding at $9.95. She was thrilled when the painting sold for $300. That experience encouraged her to continue.
About the same time, God called her to preach. At first, she resisted, believing she was not educated enough and did not know enough about the Bible. She said she told God, “I think you’ve made a mistake. Not me. I don’t know anything about that.”
However, she said God came to her in a vision at 3:00 a.m. and took her to the Upper Room. There, she says, she talked with the apostles. “They explained to me so much about the Bible that I didn’t understand.”
After this experience, she began to build her church with help from her daughter. Beginning with an old mobile home, she added interior walls, built church furniture and decorated the inside. The pews came from an old church.
She says she is still adding on to the church, which has been built with salvaged materials. At one time, she said she wondered how she could afford to buy nails. But she soon found several buckets of nails in a dumpster.
Inside the church, brightly dressed angels cover the walls, along with words of Christian encouragement. Cutout angels hang from the ceiling. She has even created life-sized saints and angels for the church. She said God guided her in how to make them. She first built a wooden base and then added wire supports. She bought discounted bed-sheets at a mission thrift store and draped them around the wire. Then she covered the figures with plaster of Paris and molded their features. Finally, she waterproofed them with a layer of cement.
Inside her home, every surface is covered with her paintings -- the walls, ceilings, floors and kit