Leon Backes lives for creativity. When he’s at work, he is conceptualizing the next great way to develop a building that will appeal to the masses. And when he’s not, Backes immerses himself in oil painting.
So it’s no surprise that when Backes (pronounced BACK-us) built his home three years ago, an art studio was a must. The room holds a nearly 10-foot-tall custom easel. With floor-to-celling windows on two of the four walls and sleek counters, the room is an art marvel in itself. Built-in cubbies and the floor surrounding the easel are loaded with Backes’ favorite paintings. “You can come here, and the whole day will go by without you noticing” how much time has passed, he says. “You can immerse yourself in the process, and the more you do it, the better you get.”
The studio’s white walls, cabinets, and floor help showcase the art around the room. Backes’ paintings are highlighted with vibrant colors that provide a sense of familiarity, like something from a book or a movie.
Backes’ flirtation with art began when he was a child. Growing up, Backes loved to draw, and he submitted his work to the local newspaper’s drawing contest every week. He said most weeks he would win the $3 prize. “It wasn’t much, but it kept me going,” he said.
In junior high, the real fun began. Backes began experimenting with painting, and got so good he was awarded a scholarship that would have paid his tuition to a state school in Missouri, his home state.
But Backes knew he wanted more than life as an art teacher, which he was sure he would become if he took the scholarship. So he didn’t pick up the brush again for years. Instead, he attended the University of Missouri-Columbia to pursue business marketing, finance, and real estate. After graduating, and finding out that there weren’t many opportunities in the Midwest, he loaded up his orange Volkswagen Rabbit and moved to Texas—where he would later rediscover his passion.
Divorced at 40, Backes had a lot of time on his hands. He turned to the brush. “I like painting because it can take me out of what I do every day,” says Backes, who’s now 60. “But you know, there are some similarities between [painting and real estate development]. The two actually work together. You have to conceive ideas for buildings so they look good.”
Before he begins a piece, Backes draws a rough sketch of what he will paint in Sharpie. After he creates a rough outline, he lays layers of paint down. He adds more layers, creating new textures and adding detail with every stroke until the piece is finished.
To decide what colors work best together, Backes relies on the color wheel, an art device that shows which colors contrast starkly and complement each other. Colors on opposite ends of the wheel create this effect, and Backes’ painting are rife with them.
Backes says he often hears people say, “Oh, I could never do that,” when they see his paintings. “I say yeah you can, you just have to do it. The first one is not going to be that good, but you figure it out.”
One of the paintings to which he relates the most depicts a man on a high wire carefully balancing so as not to fall into a blue abyss. “I liked that idea because it’s kind of like what I do every day.” He said he plans to move that painting to his new office off of U.S. Highway 75.
Backes spends his free time consumed with what to paint next. Sometimes he conceives his own ideas, and sometimes he attempts renditions of what other artists have done. His two sons, John, 34, and Blake, 12, often paint with him in the studio. “I love the creativity of it,” he says of his hobby. “It’s figuring out every one of these paintings. It’s like a puzzle that you have to assemble.”
And he does, one stroke at a time.