Article by Margaret Day Allen
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 kitchen cabinets. Many of her inventive and often whimsical paintings show women feeding chickens or women going to church with angels flying overhead. There are also paintings of Indians in headdresses carrying babies on their backs. She said these paintings are in honor of her mother, who was part Native American.
One of her paintings is called The Chicken Tree of Life. In it, women walk underneath three trees. Instead of leaves, chickens cover the branches. She said when she was growing up, chickens were everywhere, and that is why she paints them. But the chickens also appear to have some kind of spiritual significance. Perhaps they are related to the angels that appear in many of her paintings.
She said about the chickens: “In my paintings, the people are never abusing the chickens, or whipping the chickens, or being mean to the chickens. They are always feeding the chickens and being kind to them.”
In the paintings that show a church, the steeple is always bent forward, as if God were reaching down from Heaven. There is always a window in the steeple. She explained that this window represents the Upper Room, where Jesus ate his last meal with the disciples before his crucifixion.
Many of her paintings show large, colorful roosters, sometimes pulling carts. There are also men fishing and driving tractors. Some paintings show people dancing and drinking. She usually paints on found materials such as boards and roofing tin.
Leonard also makes what she calls “spirit dolls.” She digs clay from her yard and hand-molds the figures. Then she lets them air dry for several weeks before firing them in an open pit. Finally, she paints the dolls in bright colors.
On the wall of her bedroom hangs the top of a patio table. On it she has painted a joyful picture of herself and her daughter. On her bed is a quilt she made depicting things that are important in her life.
Perhaps her most dramatic artwork is a large mural that covers the outside of her mobile home. It consists of three scenes. In the first, she is holding her daughter as a baby while a menacing figure tries to take the child away. The next scene shows her kneeling and in shackles. In the third part of the triptych, Leonard is depicted with the devil holding her head and an angel pulling her feet.
“That’s my life story,” she explained. “The devil’s got me by the head and the angel’s pulling me by the feet saying, “Release her, she’s mine.” She said the painting symbolizes her struggles as a single parent. “You’re struggling and sacrificing, and all the time the devil is tormenting you and tormenting you. Then God said, ‘That’s enough! She’s been through enough!’”
Leonard says she prays in her church every day, asking for guidance, and for the people who call her prayer hotline. She preaches every Sunday. Sometimes the church is packed, while other times she has only two or three worshipers. However, she feels she is doing God’s will.
“My painting is a gift from God,” she said. “I can’t very well draw, so I don’t sketch anything out and try to stay in the lines. I just put gobs of paint on there. I never know what a painting is going to look like until after it’s done.” Her painting style and subject matter resembles that of Clementine Hunter, who lived nearby in Natchitoches, La. Leonard said she never met Hunter in life, but the late folk artist came to her in a dream.
The Associated Press published a widely circulated article about Leonard’s art in 2007. [“Juanita Leonard’s Beautiful World: A Folk Artist Paints Ordinary Wonders” by Carol Kopp.] She has exhibited her work in the area and appeared on local television. However, financial success has come slowly. She earns a living by operating a booth at a local flea market.
She sells her art through dealer Roff Graves’ gallery in Lodi, Calif., and to people who take the time to visit her home. She remains optimistic and trusts in God. “There are still things that are yet to come,’ she says.
“I know that a lot of my work isn’t perfect,” she said. “But it’s perfect to me, and God said it’s OK. God is pleased with it.”
MARGARET DAY ALLEN is the author of the book When the Spirit Speaks: Self-Taught Art of the South and a member of the Folk Art Society of America Advisory Board. She often writes about self-taught art.
As seen in the Folk Art Messenger: