First published: Summer 2016
“There goes crazy Juanita.” Over about 40 days, the sight of a woman dressed in “white swaddling” carrying a large, white, bamboo cross along a rural Louisiana highway earned Juanita Leonard a lasting reputation. That’s what neighbours and relatives still call her – about ten years later now, and mostly behind her back, but she says, “All my life they thought I was one that was kinda off anyway, [I’m] always gonna be that oddball one in the bunch that’s gonna just do odd things and not gonna blend in...”.
Often in the early morning, and again in the late afternoon, she would walk slowly for about an hour: towards the small town of Montgomery and back again. Sometimes singing or humming, sometimes mumbling, but always looking upwards, Ms Juanita strode on, indifferent to the jeers and car horns of passers-by. As she was beginning her first ministry, Christ had appeared and directed her to take up the two-metre cross of her making. White-robed friends joined her roadside processional on Good Friday, and she cherishes that those cross-bearing walks “brought [her] so much closer to Jesus.”
Leonard and twelve siblings were raised on a small family farm “with chickens everywhere” about 15 minutes “down the road.” Her mother worked in the cotton fields and her father was a hired farmhand. Born in 1960, she grew up with little exposure to art and didn’t finish high school, but at 17 her mother allowed her to paint their car and cover the insides of closet and pantry doors in the family home with “stick people, flowers, and shrubs.” Leonard continued wall painting when she could, but it wasn’t until about 2004 that she began to paint extensively on the walls of her own house – where she no longer needed to keep her work hidden from disapproving eyes. Around that time she was shown reproductions of Clementine Hunter’s work – “she let me see the light, I saw the light through her paintings” – and later, Hunter’s murals, about 65 kilometres away at Melrose Plantation: “I felt a spirit when I walked through her house on Melrose, as if she was speaking to me.”