Artist Spotlight: Leilani Leo

Words By Ambar Ramirez


Some individuals spend their whole lives with a clear vision of what they want their future to look like. They dress a certain way, read certain books and choose specific classes and majors to ultimately reach their dream job. But for others, the journey toward discovering one’s purpose unfolds differently — allowing their purpose to find them. This is precisely how it transpired for artist Leilani Leo.


While Leo was born on the West Coast in California, she’s always called Jacksonville her home. Leo grew up around performative art with her mother being a fire-breather, but she had no plans to become an artist. In fact, Leo said her only experience in the arts was “being a performer and helping her kids with science projects.” Instead, Leo ultimately ended up being a “corporate lady” (her words not mine).  


But the world has a funny way of working. If Leo hadn’t worked in law or for insurance companies for all those years, she wouldn’t have been forced to find a creative outlet outside of her corporate life. And she wouldn’t have taken her first art class in 2011, and she learned being an artist isn’t necessarily something you are born with.  


“I never really did art until I met my first art teacher who taught me that painting was different than drawing, [that] it didn’t have to be scary,” Leo shared. “That’s how I came to do more of the mixed media pieces … even though technically I’m an oil painter, at least that’s what I would call myself.”


It was what we call a full circle moment. Something sparked within Leo once she realized you didn’t have to know how to draw to paint. The same way her mother would make tapestries and performance costumes, Leo had done the same with her kids but with science projects and embroidery. 


“My mom would probably have never had called herself an artist, but she would find ways,” Leo recalled. “Like she made all our costumes and things, she would play [at] parties and things like that, but I think that probably led me more into being a performer.”


Funny enough, being a performer also gave Leo an upper hand when she started becoming an artist. She could skip the whole part of being afraid to share and show her pieces publicly. And it was actually during a “Folio” Artwalk party that I first met Leo when she was one of the featured artists. Her large mixed-media pieces unfolded a story the longer you looked at them, and I just knew I had to meet the painter behind the brush.


“I was just like, ‘Look what I did’,” Leo said. “Especially at 37, I understand art. You realize that art is subjective, not everybody’s going to like it.”


Before the pandemic Leo and a group of artisans traveled every full moon to set up at art shows in different locations. They called themselves Gypsy Moon Traveling Artists.


“We had done about three of them [art shows], and we were doing really well,” Leo shared. “And then the pandemic happened and then it was just kind of like putting butts in seats — what I was good at — was no longer a good thing.”


Leo settled down for a while. She set aside her paintings. Her daughter gave birth to her first grandbabies, and she was able to spend time with her family and take a step back from the arts for a while. But not being able to showcase her work during the pandemic and losing business just as it was really starting to pick up, Leo knew other artists must have been going through the same thing. 


“I knew I wanted to help other artists somehow,” Leo said. 


And that she did. Even without a brick and mortar location, Leo has found ways to give artists a platform to publicly share their work in welcoming environments. For instance, Leo organized an artist spotlight at Tabula Rasa Brewing for the whole month of June, along with what she is calling the “Tropical Vaudeville” a variety show on June 25. She has also organized a couple of other events for artists throughout the month of June, running until August. 


“I love bringing creatives together; it’s my passion,” Leo shared. “Sometimes, too, it’s really just showing someone the way. I like to call it a facilitator or the band promoter.”


In the same way Leo has a passion for highlighting local artists and talent, her art highlights the beauty in the world. She wants viewers to feel empowered after viewing her colorful pieces. Still, her pieces beg viewers to look closer to find where our beauty and faults intertwine. Her art highlights human nature. 


“For me, it was about finding that, although it can be beautiful, there’s a little bit of not so beautiful things behind it,” Leo explained. “And that just comes with us as a human race. And culture, culture is important to me and just people in general.”

About Ambar Ramirez

Flipping through magazines for as long as she can remember, Ambar Ramirez has always known she wanted to be a journalist. Fast forward, Ambar is now a multimedia journalist and creative for Folio Weekly. As a recent graduate from the University of North Florida, she has written stories for the university’s newspaper as well as for personal blogs. Though mainly a writer, Ambar also designs and dabbles in photography. If not working on the latest story or design project, she is usually cozied up in bed with a good book or at a thrift store buying more clothes she doesn’t need.