Greatness in Graphite
Hernando artist J. Rodney Leath on sketching famous faces and the healing power of the pencil
Story by Casey Hilder
Arts | May 2014
For J. Rodney Leath, the studio has become a sanctuary. The 34-year-old pencil artist and painter can often be found in a dimly lit corner in his spacious Hernando home amid scattered bits of eraser and stacks of high-gloss photos adorned with Post-it notes. And after a few hundred increasingly meticulous pencil strokes, the result is a painstakingly recreated original work that captures a different side of his subjects. A realistic, rustic image produced through the unique filter of this Rembrandt-meets-rock star artist.In his second-floor studio, he’s able to unwind and be at ease in both appearance and mannerisms. “I’ve had ‘em since I was like 12, always wear ‘em when I have some messy studio work to do” Leath says of his paint-encrusted pants dashed with lingering remnants of his past works.Leath can rarely be found without a pencil on hand and a few behind his ears. During the day, he works as a marketing director for Stylecraft Home Collection, a company that mass produces high-quality framed works of art for purchase at department stores like Target.
While he enjoys his work and even earned the right to be featured in a few of the company’s works, the casual accommodations afforded by his “second job” as a self-fashioned portrait artist make for quite a dream job.“I ended up really lucky to be in the position I’m in right now,” Leath says. “I mean, I’m in the middle of it on a daily basis. I get to see the entire process of production all the way through, from the artists’ process to getting the prints on Target shelves.”Always one to find inspiration in unlikely places, Leath’s current career didn’t begin to take shape until he reached his lowest point. “I spent four months in treatment about ten years back. It took a lot out of me and I almost had nothing by the time I was through,” he says. “Hospitalized rehab for drug addiction. Outside of the normal classes and little inpatient things you have to do, I really came back to drawing during that time.”Now, with his feet firmly planted in a pleasant part of a picturesque community, Leath no longer has to scavenge. While he’s still not exactly a connoisseur of the finer things in life, Leath’s definitely taken a liking to the acid-free paper he now uses that is specially formulated to preserve each delicate stroke. The subjects of Leath’s work run the gamut from universally renowned to particular and precious. Famous faces like Mila Kunis and Bear Bryant have sprung forth from his tip of his pencil, as well as intimate and emotional portraits like that of MidSouth firefighter Eric Beasley and Delta BBQ maven Melissa Cookston.
And Leath never skips on the little things. The most miniscule details of the photorealistic faces featured in his work present themselves in the form of the mole on Marilyn Monroe’s lip, the wrinkles of an elderly church volunteer and the boyish coifs of a pair of young twins. He dissects photos not based around the human figure, but the expression and emotions that bring the form alive. His creative conscious was awakened at started doodling the über-expressive Bart Simpson in the early ’90s at the height of The Simpsons’ popularity and eventually shifted to a more subdued style.“My drawing interest kind of picked up when I was 7 years old. As a matter of fact, I just finished a commission for one of my old kindergarten teachers,” he says, stifling a humble grin. “I just never really put it down. At the end of the day, I still feel like a kid.”Before he became a sponsored artist, Leath sought artistic expression by any means through found works and makeshift canvases. Even today, he’s grown so used to priming and recoating old framed commercial works, doors and scrap wood that the frugal aspect has been surmounted by just another step in the creation process.“I donate a lot of artwork to friends and non-profits,” he says. In 2003, Leath donated work to WKNO for a live televised auction to benefit quality and educational television in West Tennessee. “I’m really fortunate to pick and choose what I’m interested in these days,” Leath says. “I don’t want to feel like I have to sit down and work at it like a second job. Some days my 9-5 just takes it out of me.”