The mysterious landscape of the Columbia Basin is captivating in itself, and local artist Herb Leonhard has stirred the scenery of imagination into the cauldron for an interactive play between fantasy and the everyday.
Best known for his scenes of playful fantasy in illustration, murals, and coloring books, Leonhard believes his path as an artist comes down to following the Muse, wherever it may lead.
“I couldn’t imagine not being an artist…doing these pictures is an innate part of who I am,” Leonhard said.
Columbia Basin inhabitants may encounter Leonhard’s public works around the Mid-Columbia region. Four familiarly fantastic murals, which Leonhard co-creates with his wife Allyson Leonhard, invite visitors to explore Adventures Underground Bookstore and Caterpillar Cafe in Richland. The murals can also be found at Dragonfire — Goblin Smith stores in downtown Kennewick. The Leonhards’ murals may leap out at visitors to Prosser as well, and the interior walls of the Princess Theatre in Prosser are secret windows to his dreamy world of dragons and princes, witches and fairies.
Despite the ephemeral nature of his art, Leonhard is often found engaging with the community at book signings, public markets, renaissance faire events, and Tri-cities’ annual Arts in the Park in Richland. It seemed to be the call of the Muse, or destiny, that led the Leonhards to make the Columbia Basin their home.
“We initially came to Prosser in the mid-90s to build and run a miniature golf course that we decorated with fantasy and storytime images and sculptures,” Leonhard says. “The business didn’t last, but we’re still here. Coming from Portland, it took me a long time to really get used to the landscape and climate in this area, but I’ve since grown to love it. I think we have the best year-round weather of just about anywhere, and I really enjoy observing the changing light on the Horse Heaven Hills, which I see from my front door every day.”
Fantasy art was a natural evolution of Leonhard’s childhood immersion in the pages of Marvel comics and, later, the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. Leonhard comments, “I think I can say that reading the Tolkien books as a teenager really did change my life and open a door to the worlds of high fantasy, myth, and legend.”
The Prancing Pony business, where the Leonhards offer art coffee mugs, bookmarks, fine art prints, illustrated books, and coloring books, is another co-endeavor of the creative couple. The business is a means to merchandise the work and get it out in the open, according to Leonhard, since trying to make a living as an artist is always a challenge. As a bonus to Leonhard aficionados, coloring books lend an interactive element to his art.
“As far as the coloring thing goes, I am absolutely delighted to see what people do with my images, especially when they use colors and techniques that I would never have thought of,” Leonhard says. “And it’s a wonderfully direct way for the art to connect with people, more so than being a passive observer of the piece.”
Leonhard is no stranger to the Muse of music, either, evident in his 2001 collaboration to illustrate a book of lyrics to songs by musical artist Tori Amos. Leonhard claims his current inspiration is a mix of music, spirituality, and nature.
“And the better parts of human nature that occasionally surface out of the chaos that we’ve all just spent the past few years going through together,” he adds.
Some of Leonhard’s recent work, such as the illustrated books featured at Art in the Park this year, seemed to veer from his signature fantasy sci-fi style into the realm of more abstract ideas. Ephemeral Musings, Sound in Vision, and The Sound of Horizons touch upon the surreal, the mythological, and the abstract.
When questioned what fueled this detour from the more traditional fantasy art, Leonhard had this to say, “About the beginning of this year, I became very interested in photographing textures around my house, often overlooked ones like concrete, gravel, dirt and such, and creating art fairly spontaneously by combining these photos with digital manipulation, painted elements and whatever occurred to me at the time. It opened up a whole new creative method for me, which has also spilled over into my more familiar types of images. It was also much more rooted in the subconscious and spiritual parts of me than I’d done before. I put together a book of these images, called Ephemeral Musings, which can be found on Amazon, the Etsy Shop and the website. Since then, I’ve done another dozen or so of them, so there will eventually be a ‘Volume 2’ somewhere down the line.”