The sign that Stephen Leakos put up on the front of his Skowhegan Downtown Art Gallery (“Est. 1999”) and Leakos Auction (“Est. 1964”) in Skowhegan, Maine, read: “A Provocative Painting by S.P. Leakos Titled: Elephant Setting On Tolet Taking A Shit. For Sale for $150,000.”
As the 81-year-old tells it, “The police called me up and said, ‘No, you can’t show that on the main street of town.’” As he tells it, the police told him, “’Mr. Leakos, that sign saying provocative, can you take it down?’ It was up there one month.”
Leakos says he had planned a one-day painting show of the “Provocative Painting.” If this abstracted picture of an elephant has an elephant trunk or elephant ears or elephant legs, they’re not obvious. Instead, orange and yellow lines seem to form a wiring diagram or a cross-section revealing the inner workings of…something. What might be an eye stares from the top of a turquoise square on the right. At left, an orange oval inside a square outlined in lilac could be the “shit,” maybe. A strip of paper stapled to the bottom-right reads: “Titled: Elephant Setting on Tolet Taking a Shit by S.P. Leakos for sale for $100,000”
“When I put the painting up, it didn’t look like an elephant taking a shit,” he tells me. “They didn’t understand it.”
One morning at the end of July, I find Leakos outside his enterprise at 69 Water St., sitting on metal folding chair in the hot sun painting a sign on the front of the building. He wears a blue work shirt tucked into paint-spattered blue jeans, gray hair tucked under a black ball cap, and sneakers. He agrees to talk with me, but insists that whatever the results are will be unauthorized. His smile reveals a couple missing teeth. There’s a twinkle in his eye as he expounds on his art world theories—the need to be controversial, the need to give his paintings high prices.
“The town can’t do much with me,” Leakos says. “They would like me to be gone. I don’t fit in. To them, this is a disgrace.”
In addition to the aforementioned elephant painting, his artworks include a painting of a “Hermaphrodite,” a painting titled “Semen home from the war” (“That’s right, the semen that comes out of your dick”), and “Female Rat With Out a Tale in a Whorehouse” ($125,000, marked down from $650,000). On the front of his shop he’s painted racist carnival-type broadsides reading “Bill Fine Traveling Extravaganza / See Little Bare-Ass Sambo Wrestling A Wild Beast And Other Events” and a row of smiling Black women in bikinis above the slogan “Palace, Present July 21 to 27, 2019, The Dancing African Queens.”
“I try to be conservative here,” Leakos says. “And after a while, I realize it doesn’t work. Being mainstream doesn’t work.”
“People weren’t into that,” he elaborates. “Being conservative would be like painting Andrew Wyeth or Norman Rockwell. Anyways, I couldn’t paint like that. I couldn’t paint it. And when I tried to paint it, it was really bad, really fucking bad.”
Leakos says he was born in 1938 in Skowhegan, where he grew up. His father, Peter Leakos, ran what I’ve seen described as “an ice cream and candy parlor/ shoe shine/ hat cleaning shop” in Skowhegan. He offered “boot blacking rooms,” according to the “Maine Register, State Year-book and Legislative Manual,” from about 1922. The Maine Historical Society calls it a “shoe shining parlor.” In a Dec. 24, 1925, advertisement in the Daily Kennebec Journal, Peter Leakos, proprietor of Paradise Sweets in Skowhegan, recommends that “Chocolates make a fine gift” for Christmas. “Week end specials” include chocolates, crackers, peach blossoms, hard candies and rock candy.
“For an upset stomach for 25 cents buy a Bromo-Seltzer at Paradise Sweets. It’s the name of my dad’s ice cream parlor,” Leakos tells me. “We were down at Whittemore’s 47 years,” he says, referring to the real estate office now occupying the corner of Water, Commercial and Court streets.
After high school, Leakos says he served in the Marines from 1957 to ’60, in the years between the American wars in Korea and Vietnam. “I missed it all.”
“When I got out of the service, I wanted to get into art,” Leakos says. “I wrote to Yale because my friend Bill Cummings, who started Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture, went there.” He says he also wrote to Chicago’s Art Institute. “I sent them 5 bucks [to enroll]. My father was pretty pissed at me. ‘What are you doing? You’re a businessman and always have been a businessman. There’s no future for you in art. So I went to Skowhegan School of Business.” Then, “I got an auctioneer’s license.”
Leakos says, “I worked for years as a professional skier. Ski patrol, Stratton Mountain, Vermont. I started at Sugarloaf, Maine. Ended up at Stratton Mountain.”
“I owned a [defunct] movie theater in Manchester, Vermont, for 14 years,” Leakos says. “That’s where I practiced art. The old Colonial Theatre.”
“I say I started practicing [art] about 1968 and it took me 14 years of practicing before I put this together,” Leakos says. “Fourteen years, that’s all I did. Fourteen years of watercolor pieces on scrap paper.”
As Leakos tells it, he painted red, blue and white abstractions. “Then it evolved into maybe I can put a person in here.” He looked up cubism and Marc Chagall at the library. “Then I evolved a combination of all great artists. I’m not original.”
Leakos says he moved into his Skowhegan building—a former restaurant, he says—in 1983. He lives upstairs. “I have no money and it’s deteriorated so bad. I have a feeling it’s going to be torn down.”
For about a decade and a half, he says, he’s displayed his paintings on the front of the building—paintings as big as 16 feet by 20 feet. “I couldn’t make a living at this.”
A sandwichboard reading “Open to Downtown Art Show” points to a door with a painted sign: “Entrance to Skowhegan Downtown Art Gallery: Sculpture, Preforming Arts, and the Joy of Nature. Est. 1999.” The storefront windows are filled with paintings that could be a cross of Picasso, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and circus sideshow banners. Inside a room is completely filled with paintings—various abstracted faces, an abstracted person flying an airplane, one that reads across the top: “For Sale Pet Monkey 50 Bucks,” another one with label stapled to it reading: “Girl Tossing Red Balls in a Blue Sky O’Yemen … For Sale for $650000.”
“The big thing I discovered in this town is all the artists do their shows in the basement of the Skowhegan library,” Leakos says. “I never have. I saw a survey. They said 10,000 cars go through town. So I realized I’d have a better showing of my own work on the face of the building. That didn’t work. Why should I put $300, $400 on it? So I put $150,000. Which hit the mark. People started coming to look. I started opening up at nighttime.”
Enter the door of his auction business and down the cluttered hall is a “Ticket Booth,” with a life-sized puppet of a witchy woman inside. Leakos say that to dissuade kids from visiting his gallery and interrupting him, he began charging 25 cents admission. But there were still too many interruptions, so he says he upped the admission to $5. He let me in for free.
The walls of the large room inside are stacked with paintings. His 2015 artwork “The Professor” seems to show an abstracted naked guy with glasses sitting on red rug reading a book. Other folksy paintings depict a strong man lifting a 500-pound weight, an elaborately tattooed man, a blonde “Miss New York” wearing a crown, a character in a top hat with a wand and playing cards below the words: “See Little Jimmy the Magician Do The Detachment Live Human Head in a Box Illusion and Other Mystifying Illusions.” One painting says, “See Sarsha the Acrobatic Zebra Do Her Death Defying Leap Through a Hoop of Sharp Orange Spears.” Another reads “This Summer Fly United Airlines to Spain to See Matadors.” A third presents “Defining Death ‘Anlace’ the 30 Inches Sword Swallower.” A chimp in one painting smiles under the words “Meet ‘Milt’ the State of Maine Checker Champion at Lakewool Theater, July 4th.”
How does he come up with subjects? “Being bored,” Leakos says.
But why carnival scenes? “My father was in the carnival,” Leakos answers. “He did it for a little while. I was not even born. I didn’t get any inspiration for the carnival from him. He didn’t give a shit if I lived or died. He didn’t like me.”
Leakos climbs into one of his storefront window to show me a painting reading “See Shelar the Bearded Hermaphrodite and Lots More Unusual Freaks of Nature at Carl Jones All American Freak Show … Coney Island.” A bit of leopard spotted gray fabric serves as the “hermaphrodite”’s skirt.
“I can’t get anyone to lift it up. They don’t dare look under the skirt. They don’t dare to look at what it is. Imagine, they’re scared to look at a hermaphrodite,” he says. He lifts it up, with a naughty smile, to reveal painted red underwear. “The way I come up with it, I go through a dictionary a lot looking for words I can’t spell.”
“It’s coming to the point where I’m going to get more and more bizarre,” he confides. How come? “Well, it’s a lot of fun, isn’t it?”
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