Leon Kennedy has lived and worked in Oakland, California for over 25 years and has been a resident of Oak Center Towers, a Covia Affordable Community, for seven. If you are out, about, and aware, you may just run into him on an Oakland street — where he is busy capturing on canvas the people and scenes of Bay Area life. Leon paints on “everything.” Some of his most impressive works have been captured on bed sheets he has found on the streets. Works on wood, tables and chairs, glass, and metal (even hubcaps) have been known to grace a thorough Kennedy collection. Many of the materials he works with come from the East Bay Depot for Creative Reuse in Oakland. He creates his artworks with markers, paints, crayons, beads, glitter, cotton, yarn, and rope.
Leon is rated one of the top 100 self-taught artists in the country. His works are coveted by prominent Folk Art collectors everywhere. Serious collectors take huge store in the fact that Mr. Kennedy’s works appear in the Smithsonian Institute, which adds value to the ownership of a Kennedy original.
Community is a central part of Kennedy’s vision of life, as shown in his painting, “Thou Shalt Love Thy Neighbor as Thyself.” Kennedy explains that his art stems from his love for humanity, and he especially loves to paint the faces of the people that matter most to him, his close friends and family and neighbors.
“I love to see a picture of the beauty of old faces, young faces, all colors,” he says. “Everyone has their own beauty, everyone has character, and everyone goes through something. My work is based on community and family, and I love doing the faces and showing the heart and love. The heart of the community — you call it love.”
It is profoundly important for Leon Kennedy that his art serves the community. In a recent application Kennedy made for a public mural, a panelist said, “Mr. Kennedy actively builds community through his art.” His proposal was approved and the mural will be completed in 2020 at the African American Museum and Library.
“The main idea of my art is concern for people, encouraging someone else,” he said. “I love when someone loves the work, and feels touched. We’re here to serve and love and encourage one another. When I get a vision, I hope it helps someone.”
He has long had a vision as an artist. “As a child I knew that art was my vocation,” Kennedy said. Born in 1945 in Houston, Texas, he moved to the Bay Area in 1965. He lived in San Francisco’s Mission District in the 1970s and painted his first public mural in Hunter’s Point during that time. In Oakland, Kennedy began by painting on cloth, but he soon ran out of canvas, so he started painting on bed sheets and other found materials.
It seems fitting that he often finds his “canvases” on the street. “My art studio is the street,” Kennedy explained. “I paint on bed sheets that I hang on wooden fences and building walls.”
Kennedy paints nearly every day, often working on a bed sheet or a huge piece of cloth spread out on the floor of his studio apartment. He paints while kneeling, as if immersed in prayer. He explains that artistic visions constantly come to him. Living at Oak Center Towers provides him with a steady home base as well as a community from which to draw inspiration. “I love the variety of people here, I love my view of downtown,” he said. “The staff here is so supportive; anything that needs fixed is taken care of right away. I’m also inspired by the other artists here. I’d love to bring them all together so the world can see our creativity.”
Leon Kennedy will have a public mural called Oakland Faces on display at the Oakland Public Library in January. His work will be on exhibition at the Oakland Asian Cultural Center in February as a part of the Black History Month celebration.
*This article was previously published in the Fall 2019 edition of Community Matters with quotes adapted from a Street Spirit article from April 2014.