"Mama's Shock"

  • Biography

    Leon Collins (Born 1930)

    “The inspiration comes from my great, great grandmother...the will comes from God.”

    Leon Collins was born in Galveston.  At the age of four, he was sent to live with relatives in Baton Rouge.  At eight he moved to Beverly Hills, California to live with his mother. Each summer he was sent to Brazoria, Texas to stay with his great-great-grandmother, “Big Mama.”

    “Big Mama,” who lived to be 114, told him stories which he recorded in his Big Chief notebook. When Leon’s mother passed away, Leon moved from California to Navasota, Texas where his mother’s sister lived.

    “If God gives me my sight back, I’m going to start painting again.”

    For two years Leon’s daughter Molly Bee was his caretaker when he was afflicted by brain cancer in 2005. In 2007, his sight returned. He kept his promise to God.

    Before returning to his art, Leon spent time as a picker for Tejas Antiques. Duane Garner, owner, saw some of Molly Bee’s paintings and quickly sold them at his shop. Both Leon and Molly Bee were quickly in the art business. Word of their “folk” art quickly spread. Their paintings hang from coast to coast. Recently Rice University recognized their art with the exhibit "The Color of Life."

    Of his artwork, Leon Collins said: "Ninety percent of my work comes from God and Big Mama.”

    Leon’s and Molly Bee’s Updates:
    Leon and Molly Bee Collins will be part of the Main St. Fort Worth Arts Festival April 10-13.

    This opening is special for two reasons. This is a father / daughter exhibition and this is their first show in an art gallery. The Texas artist’s work is from their hearts and imaginations.  Neither is trained as an artist, instead their paintings are ”recollections” of stories, events, places, characters and ideas brought to life in brilliant color.
    Information for the Festival reads: "Leon’s need to paint came about because of an “unusual life situation.”One morning Leon lost the ability to speak and his sight.  For two years he lived in darkness and fear.  He never lost his faith though. Miraculously both returned at the same time.  It was at that moment he decided to paint “to keep the darkness away.” His daughter, Molly Bee, encouraged him to paint his poetry and that is why she is the light of his life.

    Molly Bee acquired her nickname at the age of two.  Named after Leon’s great-great grandmother’s sister, the first Molly Bee lived to be 119 and died in 1970.  Her first memory was of seeing her parents chained together at a slave auction. She lived a rich, full life that she shared with Leon. It was these stories that Molly Bee began to paint in her own style at the age of nine. In 2007 a family friend, Duane Garner, asked her to paint something for his antique store which proved to be a wonderful idea because Molly has not stopped since. Molly Bee is a teenager, but tells stories with the “color of life.”

    "Leon Collins," Old Art Guy, Web, July 2017


    Following are entries on the Blog of Russell Cushman Art in Navasota, Texas

    My friend and neighbor Leon Collins does a kind of folky-edgy/borderline unsettling art and cannot keep his work in stock. Leon produces art like a madman with a gun to his head. He paints an average of at least one painting a day. A LARGE painting. That includes prep work and framing, and annoying me occasionally when he gets restless. He does not have time to think a thought. He paints what he sees, what he dreams, what he remembers, anything that comes to his mind. There is often no symbolic theme, no deep story behind his works, no mission, no central message; A little girl avoids the jaws of an alligator, a man ducks his wife’s rolling pin, black women sail through a cotton field dragging enormous sacks… A crazy looking bird watches… you don’t know what it is… He is as purely stream of conscious as I have ever known. 

    I purchased this painting by Leon Collins about a year ago. I had acquired two from him earlier but sold them for very satisfying profits.

    This composition is very tame for Leon, who often paints ghoulish characters overtaking expressive female forms, or black men and women in chains, suffering and enduring, often with allusions to Black Magic. His average customers are white, upper middle class, who befriend him and embrace his work as if on a pilgrimage.

    Smothered in approval and acceptance, Leon is even more addicted to the action … the thrill of painting and selling.  He has no website, no business card. No agent. And he has sold thousands compared to my scores, just painting on the sidewalk in Navasota, Texas. His highest art actually begins when he begins to talk about the paintings… then he is at his most creative. Leon is nothing if not the biggest, the most talented salesman and story teller in Grimes County. But his verbosity is matched only by his impatience. And if you catch him after a slow day, you will land a hell of a bargain.

    Almost everything Leon Collins does is the antithesis to whatever any artist or professor or knowledgeable person has ever told me.And yet his sales outstrip whatever might be second. We talk all the time about the hows and whys... Leon's work and its success is a perfect storm, the juxtaposition of local color, black culture, popular fantasy, and the white need to prove something. He is thriving purely because he offers a product that hits this culture right between the eyes… and they do not even know why.  Ever since Picasso's Guernica, art has denied the soul. But when people meet Leon Collins, they seem to discover theirs. He is the high priest of racial atonement, and his sidewalk easel the confessional. And he has won thousands of converts.

    And yet amazingly, against all workshops and lectures about marketing to the contrary, his success is completely dependent on word of mouth.

    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 black 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 antique 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 in Navasota, 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. They hardly ever give a hoot about the rest of us...

    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 what people take home as a souvenir from a cherished acquaintance.

    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 Texas 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...