Tattered Jeans

A life in colors: Inspired by Big Mama, a father and daughter duo launch an unlikely art career

A life in colors: Inspired by Big Mama, a father and daughter duo launch an unlikely art career

News_Katie_Leon Collins_Painting directly behind_“Dewberry Patch”_Painting over doorway_“Grandma’s Hands”_by Molly Bee
"Dewberry Patch" Photo by Katie Oxford
News_Katie_Leon Collins_Window at Tejas Antiques in Navasota_Painting resting on chair by Molly Bee Collins_“The Cotton Walk.”
Window at Tejas Antiques in Navasota, with painting "The Cotton Walk" by Molly Bee Collins resting on chair Photo by Katie Oxford
News_Katie_Leon Collins_Painting over doorway_“Grandma’s Hands”_by Molly Bee
Painting over doorway, "Grandma's Hands" by Molly Bee Photo by Katie Oxford
News_Katie_Leon Collins_Painting_“Mission in New Mexico”_by Leon Collins
"Mission in New Mexico" by Leon Collins Photo by Katie Oxford
News_Katie_Leon Collins_“Madame Freeman”_first black business woman in Navasota_painted on hand hooked rug_made by Pat Shoemake
Leon with his "Madame Freeman," the first African-Americn business woman in Navasota, painted on hand-hooked rug made by Pat Shoemake Photo by Katie Oxford
News_Katie_Leon Collins_“The Cotton Walk”_by Molly Bee Collins
"The Cotton Walk" by Molly Bee Collins Photo by Katie Oxford
News_Katie_Leon Collins_Painting “As I Remember”_Leon’s great, great grandmother_(Big Mama)_and her sister_praying in the back yard
Leon's "As I Remember," with subjects Leon's great-great-grandmother (Big Mama) and her sister praying in the back yard Photo by Katie Oxford
News_Katie_Leon Collins_The Cotton Walk_detail
"The Cotton Walk," detail Photo by Katie Oxford
News_Katie_Leon Collins_and Molly Bee_“Homestead Sunday”_Below Leon’s work table_Big Mama’s chair on right
Leon and Molly Bee's "Homestead Sunday," with Leon's work table below and Big Mama's chair on the right Photo by Katie Oxford
News_Katie_Leon Collins_“Poak Salad”_by Molly Bee
"Poak Salad" by Molly Bee Photo by Katie Oxford
News_Katie_Leon Collins_“Another Sweet Song”_Molly Bee and Leon painted together
"Another Sweet Song," which Molly Bee and Leon painted together Photo by Katie Oxford
News_Katie_Leon Collins_Painting directly behind_“Dewberry Patch”_Painting over doorway_“Grandma’s Hands”_by Molly Bee
News_Katie_Leon Collins_Window at Tejas Antiques in Navasota_Painting resting on chair by Molly Bee Collins_“The Cotton Walk.”
News_Katie_Leon Collins_Painting over doorway_“Grandma’s Hands”_by Molly Bee
News_Katie_Leon Collins_Painting_“Mission in New Mexico”_by Leon Collins
News_Katie_Leon Collins_“Madame Freeman”_first black business woman in Navasota_painted on hand hooked rug_made by Pat Shoemake
News_Katie_Leon Collins_“The Cotton Walk”_by Molly Bee Collins
News_Katie_Leon Collins_Painting “As I Remember”_Leon’s great, great grandmother_(Big Mama)_and her sister_praying in the back yard
News_Katie_Leon Collins_The Cotton Walk_detail
News_Katie_Leon Collins_and Molly Bee_“Homestead Sunday”_Below Leon’s work table_Big Mama’s chair on right
News_Katie_Leon Collins_“Poak Salad”_by Molly Bee
News_Katie_Leon Collins_“Another Sweet Song”_Molly Bee and Leon painted together

I entered the Tejas Antiques store in Navasota, Texas where, behind a counter filled with homemade fudge, was the owner. Duane Garner greeted me with an open, smiling face. He was welcoming even after realizing that I’d come to view art more than antiques. 

Folk art to be exact — acrylic paintings by Leon Collins and his daughter Molly Bee. The paintings are as rich in color as they are steeped in culture. A culture that Leon and Molly Bee bring to life through vibrant colors, yet the paintings are restful. Soothing. Probably like the person to whom Leon gives all the credit.

Their art gallery (inside Tejas Antiques) is named The Color of Life.  It portrays Leon’s life, Molly Bee’s and one other’s. “The inspiration,” Leon said, his hands opened, brushing lightly across the room, “comes from my great, great grandmother … the will comes from God.”

 “I lost my sight and my speech,” Leon told me. He mentioned this briefly, like a stone skipping over water — brain cancer. 

While the sun continued scorching everything outside to a color of dull beige, Leon and I settled on a sofa surrounded by various shades of greens, blues and reds and talked about his life. As I listened, I noted he spoke easy like and reverently as if his great, great grandmother was sitting right there with us. Sometimes, I teared up.

Leon was born in Galveston, but when he turned four his parents divorced and he was sent to Baton Rouge to live with relatives. When Leon was eight, he moved out to Beverly Hills to live with his mother. But every summer he was sent to Brazoria to be with his great, great grandmother, “Big Mama.” Leon would go to the store and buy a Big Chief notebook. Then, he would write down all the stories Big Mama told him. There were many. 

I pointed to a painting by the doorway that Leon named As I remember. “That’s her and her sister,” he explained. “Every morning before we’d go out to work, we’d go in the back yard and pray. We did not leave that house before praying — not even to go fishing,” he chuckled.

In the 1970s, Big Mama died at age 119.

“I never knew her to have a sick day,” Leon said. “She never had a cold — I never even heard her cough.”

Her sister (the one praying in the painting with Big Mama) died at age 114. They were tall women, 6-foot-4 and 6-foot-6 as were all the sisters (seven altogether). In another painting, Leon included a rose plant called Seven Sisters. “Each stem grows seven roses,” he explained. 

The day before she died, Leon and Big Mama had killed a 500-pound wild hog. Then, they dragged it four miles to the house. The next day, “she knew,” Leon said. She’d told him she realized that she’d given him a lot of things to do that day but at 3 p.m. she wanted him back at the house — right there in the room with her. He was. At one minute before three, she died. Leon was in his twenties at that time.

New chapter, new challenge 

When Leon’s mother died, he packed his bags and left California for Navasota, where his mother’s sister lived. From there, he fast-forwarded to 2005.

“I lost my sight and my speech,” Leon told me. He mentioned this briefly, like a stone skipping over water — brain cancer. For the next two years, his daughter took care of him. Molly Bee began telling her father the same stories that Leon had told her growing up.

“I used to tell her stories to settle her down,” Leon explained. “You can use this,” he said, pointing to his black leather belt, “Or you can use something else.”

He started by asking her, “Did you know that my great, great grandmother lived to be 119 years old?” From there, the stories poured forth, one connecting to another and sparking Molly Bee’s interest. 

Now, as Molly Bee repeated these stories to her father, his mind recalled things. He began seeing them like in a movie. He also realized, “If God gives me my sight back, I’m going to start painting again.” (Leon first started painting in the 1970s but quit.)

 “I used to tell her stories to settle her down,” Leon explained. “You can use this,” he said, pointing to his black leather belt, “Or you can use something else.” 

Two years later (2007) Leon got his sight and his speech back. “I’ve been painting ever since,” he said. Sometimes on hand hooked rugs made by his friend Pat Shoemake

So how did his paintings get into Tejas Antiques?

Leon used to be a “treasure hunter” he called it, looking for items for the shop. One morning, Duane picked him up and spied something on his front porch.

“Who painted that?” Duane asked pointing to the painting. “That little girl right over there,” answered Leon, also pointing. That little girl was Molly Bee, artist, now age 21.

The following morning, they took some of her paintings to the shop. By 10:30 a.m., one had sold, the other two quickly thereafter. The next day, they took three more. Molly Bee turned to her father then and asked him if he was ready to start painting again. The rest is history. 

Today, theirs is indeed a life of color.  Some of their paintings now hang in New York City. In the fall, they’ll have an exhibit at Rice University. Duane Garner had told me earlier, “It doesn’t matter which way the wind’s blowin’ — economically or politically — we sell 25 to 30 of these paintings a month.”

Still, Leon’s easy like and reverent. "Ninety percent of my work comes from God and Big Mama,” he said. “She’s right here in this room. She’s sitting right there in that chair.” He pointed behind me. “Don’t you see her?”

I didn’t, but I’m certain she was there. Restful like, in vibrant colors.