A life in art
By Jack Seidenberg

Ron Leach, 50, enters his studio in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, New York, after his 90-minute commute from his home in New Jersey. Before starting work, Ron fills his coffee machine, tightly squeezed between an easel and his paintings. Ron puts on sports radio to listen to speculation about his beloved Cleveland Browns' chances in their upcoming game against the Denver Broncos.

Growing up in the small and predominantly white town of Mingo Junction, Ohio, Ron Leach was just five when his fondness for comic books sparked an interest in art. Discovering a book of baroque paintings at his aunt’s home deepened his desire to be an artist.

While at school, his principal secretly purchased him art supplies, and a local priest bought his pieces. Before graduating high school to continue studying his craft at Carnegie Mellon University, he was voted most talented by his high school class. 

Ron, 50, first moved to New York in 1997, doing construction at the Vanderbilt Hotel in exchange for lodging. After a few years, the hotel made him its artist in residence, providing him with a small basement studio in exchange for his work.

For nearly 40 years he worked mainly with pastels. He dedicated himself to oil painting after entering a National Portrait Gallery contest five years ago. 

About that time he was diagnosed with GIST, a rare type of cancer. Starting in his digestive tract, the cancer spread, resulting in a 10-centimeter tumor that was surgically removed from his rectum in 2017. In early 2021, Ron was told his cancer had been cured and to quit taking his chemo meds, which Ron thinks strengthened his immune system and helped protect him from COVID-19.

Since April 2021, a client has paid for Ron to have a studio space at J&M studio in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Ron, who lives in Union City, N.J., typically arrives at the studio between 6 a.m. and 10 a.m. every day, but prefers to start closer to 6 so he can listen to classical music without bothering the other artists in the studio space. 

With the client agreeing to pay for only an additional month, Leach is concerned about how he will be able to pay for the space moving forward.

As Ron arrives at his studio at 10 a.m., a cup of English breakfast tea from the night before sits on a wooden crate near his brushes and paint.

Ron purchases supplies at the Flatbush BLICK Art Materials store in Brooklyn. After selecting cardboard needed to ship a painting of a roadrunner to a client, Ron inspects the quality and color tone of paper he will need to work on new pastel sketches.

Ron struggles against heavy winds to hold onto his cardboard and paper as he walks down Flatbush Avenue after leaving BLICK to take the 30-minute train ride to his studio in Sunset Park.

As coffee brews, Ron leans a recently finished painting of a baboon against another painting to make space to construct a new canvas. As a child, Ron was intrigued by a baboon he saw at a zoo near his hometown of Mingo Junction, Ohio, and has been painting them since.

After flipping through a monograph about Peter Paul Rubens for inspiration, Ron gets back to work adjusting the skin tone for the nudes he is painting. Brahms' Symphony No. 4 plays quietly in the background.

Ron works on a portrait of two nude women. Behind him is an array of pieces, paint-covered clothes and a box of Honey Nut Cheerios he constantly snacks on between brush strokes. Ron has Beavis and Butt-Head playing very quietly on his laptop. He says he has seen the show so many times that hearing it in the background is not a distraction, but comforting.

While working on this piece, Ron uses 50 to 60 shades of paint, which is a norm for him. In his studio, he has more than 150 completed or near-complete paintings along with large stacks of pastel sketches.