Island painter captures the daily scenes of coastal life
Take a look at one of artist Leroy LeFlore’s paintings and you’ll learn a lot about what Galveston scenes inspire him. His art is a journal of his life — whether it’s a morning on the 10th Street jetty, a walk through an East End alley, a glimpse of the sunset from a West End beach, grazing cows in a field, or a view of the city from his third-floor studio.
LeFlore, a self-taught artist, has been drawing and painting most of his life. He was born in Oklahoma, raised in Louisiana but spent most of his adult life in Galveston or offshore. In 1971, he moved to the island to attend the Texas Maritime Academy — now Texas A&M University at Galveston — and fell in love with the city, he said. He was a marine ship engineer for more than three decades, traveling the world aboard tankers and cargo ships. His wife, Mary, stayed in Galveston, raising their three daughters as LeFlore was gone two to four months at a time.
But as he traveled and was at sea, he always painted. He took photographs of things he saw and in his off hours he would paint them.
“I always came home with something,” he said of his travels.
And, even on board the ship, he would paint: murals in the engine room, canvases in the staterooms and images on the machinery.
Although he enjoyed his seafaring career, his long stretches away from home were hard on his family. When he returned home, he often would retreat to his studio on the third floor of his 127-year-old East End house to paint some more. From there he would depict scenes from Galveston and later try to sell his art. He showed his work at the original J. Bangle Gallery on The Strand in the island’s downtown, but he never aggressively worked as an artist.
Since his retirement as an engineer in 2008, he has focused on being home and being a painter. In recent months, he has shown multiple pieces of art at The Sunflower Bakery & Café, 512 14th St. on the island’s East End.
Lisa Blair, owner of The Sunflower, loves LeFlore’s art, which covers two walls in the restaurant, she said.
“These are so popular with our customers,” Blair said. “We sell a lot of his paintings. We really love having them here.”
The paintings are large and small. They depict a moment in time: a woman with a child walking in an East End alley — with such details as a dilapidated fence, trash cans, hanging wires and potholes in the thoroughfare. A group of fishermen on a jetty are overshadowed by a huge thundercloud and beautiful sky in a large painting. Another sample of his work captures a few grazing cows on a West End island ranch. He also paints ships and schooners, some fabricated in his imagination.
Originally, LeFlore was working with watercolors, but found it too unforgiving and difficult, he said. He later developed an affinity for working with oils and found he could capture the light and ambience of scenes with those paints. He likes to document local sights and rides his bicycle around the island — always looking for those interesting moments, he said.
“I see something and I get inspired, and the next day I am painting it,” he said. “My paintings are a journal of my days.” He often takes his easel and supplies in a mini-trailer behind his bike and sets up for “plein air” or outdoor painting session.
“The problem with painting ‘plein air’ is the light continues to change as you are painting,” he said. “When that happens, the picture in front of you changes and it is difficult for me to paint what I am seeing. You just never know what you will get.”
He recently wanted to paint the yellow carpet of wildflowers that covered the grounds of Broadway Cemetery in Galveston. But, with the heat, plethora of street repair crews coming by to check on him, and the haze created by the road construction, it was a difficult task, he said. But he completed the painting by taking photos and finished the piece in his studio.
The view from that studio is enviable. He can see across the island to the Gulf of Mexico and watch the sun rise from the east. But the room has neither air conditioning nor heating, which makes it somewhat uncomfortable at certain times of the year, he said.
“It is fine for me,” he said. “I worked in an engine room all of my life. I can do this.”
The LeFlore family restored the rest of the house, which they bought in 1987.
Lately, he has been trying a new technique, which he said was inspired by a visit to an Andrew Wyeth exhibit at a Seattle museum. Wyeth mastered a method of painting called dry brush watercolor. As LeFlore began experimenting with this process, he found he could control his image better with layering of colors and designs.
“I’ve adopted it as my own technique now,” he said. “It is a bit slower because I have to pre-draw. But I’m learning.”
He also builds all of the frames for his paintings, so the entire package is custom made. Besides exhibiting work at The Sunflower, he routinely has three paintings at the Galveston Art League’s storefront on Postoffice Street downtown.
When LeFlore was a child, people told him he had artistic ability, he said. But he lacked the confidence to pursue this passion professionally, he said. As an adult and retired, he spends six hours a day with his art.
In Galveston, there are many vistas and subjects to capture: the wetlands, the beaches, the skyline, the historical buildings and houses, as well as the fishermen, shrimp boats and the harbor.
“There is so much material here, I will never run out of ideas,” he said. “To be an expert or proficient at something, you have to put in 10,000 hours. I’m going after it.”