Chris Leon

Chris Leon says he was a rough kid who left home at the age of 20 to start over in Seattle. He hung out with poets, DJs, MCs and other artists who helped him look at the world differently—but what ultimately changed his life was his aunt, who, when he was in his mid-30s, insisted that he start to paint. Last year, Leon opened a storefront to sell and make art. Artz Gallery and Gifts is at 5315 E. Broadway Blvd., Suite 102. You can get more info at the gallery's Facebook page or at their website.

Tell me about yourself.

I was born and raised in Tucson. ... I was causing and getting into trouble, and decided to start over, and I moved to Seattle. I was a rough kid and not doing good things at the time. I got into sales with Nordstrom downtown. My mom's cancer brought me back down to Phoenix to help her with her moving-and-storage company. In May 2010, I decided to come back to Tucson. I was fed up with management, and I was 34 years old. Maybe it was an early midlife crisis. I wasn't sure what I wanted to do, but I wasn't happy. ... I went to an art show at Lulubell Toy Bodega (now in Mesa) ... and a couple of weeks later, I decided to start painting. My aunt had been trying to talk me into painting. I thought it was a silly notion, but when I turned 35, I finished my first painting and haven't stopped.

Your store reminds me a little of Bohemia, which closed last month.

Believe it or not, Tana (Kelch, owner of Bohemia) was one of the people who gave me a shot to put my stuff in a store. That was such a motivator for me. I could have product in a store, and people would want to buy my stuff? Wow! From that day forward, my passion would be art. I owe her so much to motivate me.

How did the store come about?

The store came about from me growing out of my home studio. I have dogs, love dogs, but I was giving complimentary dog hair away in my paintings. I found this location. The price was right, and I had all this extra space. I like the idea that I'm creating a space to bring people together. In Seattle, I learned that you can be part of a culture, and be in it together. When I was a kid ... I felt like I had to prove myself and be a tough person. In Seattle, I hung out with poets, MCs and DJs, genuinely good people who loved their music and culture. I learned from them that you can be a nice guy, and you don't have to be a jerk to love your culture.

How do you feel doing this and being new to the Tucson art community?

I am brand-new to this. I love the fact that I am producing art and that people are paying me to do art for them. I have artists here in the gallery like Donovan White, Ed Muran III, Ruben Urrea Moreno and Robin West. Those are my heavy-hitters. In up-and-coming, there's myself, Alexis Martinez, Imp Art, Running With Scissors, Josh Cicci and others—we're finding our groove and producing some great work. I have about 38 artists in here. It's really nice that we have our elite group of people, and then me and others.

How is your studio set up in the shop?

The way the shop is set up, there's a window to an office I turned into an art studio. I work on wall murals, acrylic work and portrait paintings in oils. That's my new love, and I still do a lot of commission work ... and we also do kids' classes. They're not really classes, but kid-art sessions. I am not a teacher, but I love being able to give back to the community, too. We have kids who come in for three-hour sessions, and we let them do what they want to do and provide instruction along the way.

You're lucky you finally found what you want to do.

(A friend was recently) telling me, "I'm so jealous of you." But you know, it's the other way around. I wish I had wanted to be in art my whole life, but you are who you are because of the roads that you take. All my experience has led me to this. I'm 36 years old and feel like a big kid, because I get to play with art all day.

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