Leonard Zimmerman’s return to Augusta wasn’t marked by fanfare. He moved into his parents’ rental house on Ellis Street behind Hildebrandt’s, dragging his possessions and canvases into the narrow brownstone with his Jack Russell terrier, Spike, dancing at his heels.
But even if trumpets didn’t sound at the city gates, the simple act of taking up residence was a triumph.
“I needed to start over, after everything that I’ve been through,” Zimmerman said.
Zimmerman returned to Augusta recently to start life anew. After the death of his longtime partner, Brian Malone, the Atlanta resident came back to be with family and try his hand at a new career.
Zimmerman spent years as a graphic designer before becoming a full-time artist. At Savannah College of Art and Design, he majored in graphic design. SCAD later hired him for their in-house publication and public relations division, where he designed communications for the school.
In 1996 he followed a job that brought him work with corporate clients like Smirnoff Vodka and Jose Cuervo. And in 2000, he moved with Malone to Atlanta. His graphics experience brought in a number of high-end clients — Home Depot, Six Flags, Playboy, BellSouth and the Crowne Plaza Hotels chain. He won several Addy Awards and Citations of Excellence for his work. But it was grueling, a kind of factory feel that didn’t suit the artist within him.
“To me, graphic design sometimes can be very exacting. Things have to be just so; but when you paint, you can make something wobbly or streaky or splotchy. Sometimes when I’m painting I take a gallon of water and pour it over the canvas I just painted… just because I like the texture you can get,” he said.
Although he wasn’t working his dream job, he was happy with Malone, negotiating their disparate personalities with love and aplomb.
“He was Mr. Anal Retentive; I was not,” Zimmerman said. He once came home from work to find that Malone had repainted and redecorated an entire room by himself.
“So I walked in and this one room of the house was completely perfect,” he laughed.
And when he was happy, he didn’t feel the need to paint. But life pulled a fast one.
Malone fell ill. He spent months in a hospital before passing away. And Zimmerman, who had spent eight years with him, was devastated. Loneliness and anger set in with his sorrow. He ran through all five stages of grief, but not in order — sometimes all five in a single day.
“I painted when I was a kid and I painted in art school, and I finally decided that it was time to get up off the couch — that I couldn’t watch anymore ‘Ab Fab’ and I couldn’t burn anymore pizzas,” he said. “I said, ‘I think I can paint.’”
It was the therapeutic outlet he needed. His first paintings were rough, almost violent.
“Because I was attacking the canvas, and I was using color combinations that I’ve never used like olive green and pink,” he said. Liquid emotion boiled over and he brushed it into his scenes.
“I spent my time not worrying about rules, because it was just for me. It was quite liberating. Then I started tightening up a little but starting paying attention to form and whatnot,” he said.
Through his therapy he turned to the things that he loved. He painted baseball players — his mother is a huge Braves fan, and he played Little League as a kid. He wanted to play baseball at SCAD on the college team, but when one player had to be cut, the coach picked him.
“I admit, at the time I had a miserable throwing arm. You don’t really want a guy who throws like a girl on an art school baseball team,” he laughed.
Although he plays frequently with his sense of humor — wry, self-effacing, ironic — he is still hurt by Malone’s death and it comes through. One of his paintings shows a baseball player, picked out in shades of red, standing with his back to the viewer, looking out over an empty playing field into just a hint of stadium seating in the background. It’s a lonely, hazy scene that grabbed Robin Schweitzer, who owns Schweitzer Art Glass on Broad Street, and was one reason she offered him a show at her gallery.
Openings at Schweitzer are few, but store manager Todd Tumlin said that they might get back into it. The just don’t want to dedicate every First Friday to a new opening. Yet Zimmerman was special case.
“He’s very talented. He does lots of colorful type artwork and he’s a very sincere person. His emotion really comes through in his artwork.” Tumlin said.
Part of that is because Zimmerman never expected anyone to see what he was painting.
“It was all personal and subject matter that I wouldn’t normally paint, but I didn’t have anybody there looking over my shoulder,” he said. That freed him to express himself in a new way.
Now he’s held a show in Savannah, and is represented by Pastel Art Cafe. His show at Schweitzer opens on First Friday and he’s making friends in the Olde Town area. But he’ll tell you that recovering from a partner’s death takes time.
“The hardest thing is I wanted to paint a portrait of him and I couldn’t,” he said. When he finally could, his sister pointed out that everyone in his paintings started to look like him.
But he’s working through it, spending time at the batting cages to keep moving and, let’s face it, because it’s fun to hit things with a baseball bat. And he paints when he’s feeling sad.
“I wouldn’t mind just getting some stuff in some galleries here or there,” Zimmerman said. “If it became a full-time thing, I think I could acclimate to painting when I’m happy.”