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Protecting Leo

Thirteen-year-old Leo Ionita is an art-world phenom. His father Adrian helps to handle his affairs. Together they could make a lot of money.

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Outside, there is no trace of life. A blitzkrieg of subzero temperatures, snow, and ice has turned Little Village, a southwest-side Chicago neighborhood, into an urban tundra.

But here, in a modest kitchen on the second floor of an old lumber mill, warm, vibrant colors abound within the confines of an enormous canvas. A humanoid purple and pink and green mass hovers behind a golden saxophone; the powerful cheeks blow a tune of fire. The silent song has an industrial, techno-blues rhythm. Orange heat crackles and swirls from a rainbow cylinder and licks a sky of neon green; in a menacing pastel sky, blue planets throb, red suns roam, and yellow stars twinkle, luring souls back into a realm we all knew as children--the imagination.

This is the world Leo Ionita is painting this Saturday night, next to the stove where his mother prepares a supper of cabbage salad, turkey-neck soup, and beef tenderloin. His father watches intently from behind the bottle of clear, 100-proof Romanian moonshine he pulled from under the sink.

Leo's canvas, set up on a footstool and leaning against a brick wall, radiates the surreal energy that has begun to entrance art critics and aficionados around the world. The French government has commissioned three paintings; a deputy director of the Museum of History and Art of the City of Bucharest has called him a "phenomenon"; modern-art collector Ruth Horwich has added an Ionita to her collection; and Leo's work is being displayed at the Chicago International Art Exposition, where Leo will give a painting "performance" next weekend. Prices for his large, Picasso-like acrylic works range between $2,500 and $5,000. Not bad for a 13-year-old. Leo Ionita is a seventh-grader at the Kanoon Magnet School.

"Well?" Leo steps back. He's about five yards from the six-by-six-foot canvas, which towers over him. (Earlier Leo's mother had helped him lower the painting onto the floor so he could reach the top.) Leo has one foot up on a folding chair, while his cat Tiger coils around the other. A plump boy with a cherublike face, he has hand prints and other splotches of paint all over his tattered sweater. Mississippi Heat, his favorite blues band, is wailing away on the CD player.

"Uh, dad?" Leo asks again. His eyes are narrow. He is sleepy. Adrian, Leo's father, clears his throat. He starts to speak several times but stops. Leo's mother, Elena, who has seen this fragile encounter many times before, listens but says nothing.

Adrian finally speaks. He moves from behind the kitchen table. "That part there," he points to a space between the saxophone and the can spewing fire. "That part should be made more uniform because it is like a break into two very strong, different determinations. He [the sax player] is very clear and very strong, and then this one, the flames, you are very graphic, and then, it is in the middle of them--nothing. I feel that part should get more attention. There should be something, at least the same treatment of the oranges and reds."

A pause, then Adrian speaks again. "Leo, you know what I feel? You know what just happened to me?" Adrian is excited. He tugs at his short beard and scratches his head through a Bears ski cap as he stammers on. "I feel that this is a body," he points to the shape behind the sax. "Like this part here is the other hand. You see?"

Adrian moves his short, stout frame up next to his son. He is barely taller than Leo. They gaze into the colors with heads tilted as if this perspective will help reveal some buried theme.

"Nah," Leo says.

"No? It looks for me."

"I don't feel it."

Adrian turns, raises his arms slightly, and says, "You see, it is very difficult process. It is hard for me to access Leo. I have to be careful. Whatever I do or say can pop up later. Whatever I do today can be counterproductive later."

Adrian says that he knows this time is crucial for his son's development, not only as an artist but as a person. Adrian says that he is serious about "protecting Leo." He says that he wants his son's spirit to be free from outside pressures. But at times, what Adrian says about Leo and what Adrian does with Leo are, like the images in Leo's painting, "two very strong, different determinations."

Late in 1985 Adrian Ionita, a prize-winning graduate of Romania's elite Nicolae Grigorescu Institute of Art, was invited to participate in Forma Viva, an international sculptors' symposium in Slovenia. He accepted, and he and his wife traveled there from their home in Timisoara.

Gorbachev had just come to power; hard-line communists ruled the Soviet Union. Terms like glasnost and perestroika were barely whispered. In the Socialist Republic of Romania, President Nicolae Ceausescu--who three years later would be executed for crimes of genocide--ruled with an oppressive hand. To speak out against communism almost certainly meant death.

Adrian's frustrations with communism, however, had grown too strong to suppress. So strong that Adrian, an art teacher who had been dismissed from Romania's education system for speaking against communism, did not think about his fears, he says. At the sculptors' symposium he finally decided to attack the very heart of communism--its symbol. "I had to do something," he says. "[Communism] is so terrible. It affects your thinking, your life. I felt completely paralyzed. I felt controlled by the secret police. It is a society which has rules that control you so deep that you are afraid to speak with your friends.

"For those reasons, I went directly to the symbol. The destruction of a symbol is the first sign of weakness. A symbol is power, and without [it] no army has an appetite to go and die and war."

Adrian isolated himself for a little over a month in the mountains of Slovenia, carving his artistic assault on the icon of communism. His six-ton, 8-by-12-foot sculpture was designed to reveal a shattered hammer and sickle when viewed from above, say from a platform or a clifftop. He called the work Subject for Vera Mukhina because Mukhina was the artist who created the most notable art of Prolet Cult, the proletarian art for the communist government.

But Adrian was able to complete only part of his sculpture. After he talked to a Slovenian reporter, the reporter wrote about Vera Mukhina's meaning in "a big publication." Before Adrian was able to carve the hammer, he had to stop sculpting--as soon as the story was printed, he knew he was a "sitting duck."

Within a day or two of the first news story about his work, Adrian and Elena defected to Italy and found shelter in Lativa, a refugee camp near Rome. In Italy the Ionitas met with a U.S. consular representative and, after renouncing their Romanian citizenship and declaring that they wanted to defect to the United States for political reasons, were granted asylum. In early 1986, the couple traveled to the States and settled in Hammond, Indiana. Six months later they moved to Hinsdale, where Adrian got a job polishing stone for $5 an hour.

Adrian and Elena defected so hurriedly that they had no choice but to leave five-year-old Leo, their only child, with Adrian's parents in Timisoara. But after finding a sponsor here--the United Methodist Church--and filing the paperwork, they were able to bring Leo over. The process took more than a year: Leo arrived in the United States late in 1987. In 1991, around the same time the Ionitas attained U.S. citizenship, the family moved to Little Village and bought the gutted, drafty lumber mill that serves as their home and studio. They call it the Ionitas' Artists' Refuge. While still living in Hinsdale, Adrian had rented a space near the Artists' Refuge and traveled there with Leo whenever he wanted to sculpt.

Fortunately, while Leo was in Timisoara, nobody harmed him or his grandparents--Adrian suspects that the European media attention helped protect them. But Leo's parents feared for his life every minute he was there. On many nights Elena cried herself to exhaustion while Adrian repeated that everything was going to be OK.

Adrian, who now teaches at the Highland Park Art Center and occasionally designs interior fireplaces, is reluctant to discuss their tumultuous past, particularly when Elena is around--she hates to hear him talk about "that horrible time." But when she's not, and when he's basking in the glow of a little after-dinner moonshine, the Romanian refugee will not only tell all but seem thankful someone cared enough to ask.

When Adrian is sharing his history, though, he frequently yanks his mind from wherever it goes to get those memories, and he violently interjects, "But this is not important, my time is gone. Now attention should be on Leo." He punctuates almost every sentence by saying that his tales will not provide any insight into his son's wonderfully bizarre paintings.

True, there are no signs of that chapter from the family's story in Leo's paintings. His creations are symphonies of color featuring the Pac-Man-like characters "Chewer," "Barker," and "Tadpole." Where Adrian the artist was an angry, oppressed man who lived under harsh conditions, Leo is a soft-spoken boy, the creator and prince of his own universe. That spirit governs Leo's paintings.

Leo became interested in creating art at age four for the same reason many boys do what they do at that age--he was imitating dad. In Romania, while his father sculpted, Leo molded clay. He shaped boats, animals, and sometimes mousetraps, one of Adrian's favorite subjects. His first meaningful strokes on a canvas began much the same way. When Leo arrived in Chicago, before the family's move from Hinsdale, he made the trek two or three times each week to Little Village with his father; but now, while his father sculpted, Leo moved colors from palette to canvas. Adrian says he gave Leo brushes and paints to keep him busy and because his son enjoyed it. After Leo had amassed 12 or so paintings, however, it appears Adrian recognized there were two more reasons he should "do everything in [his] power"--"I am a poor man," he says--to supply his son with a painter's tools. Leo was talented, and there was money to be made from that talent.

In 1988 Leo sold his first painting, for $200, to a family friend, another Romanian refugee his parents met while they were in Italy. Since then Leo's popularity and the prices for his paintings have increased dramatically. His work is now displayed in more than 50 collections around the world; the average price for those of the 50 works that were sold is $3,000--the Ionitas have given away a few of the paintings to close friends. The exact amount Leo has earned is also hard to determine because Adrian doesn't like to "reveal everything." But business is excellent, he says. The majority of sales--like the most recent one, to a collector in Indiana--have come after Leo's first commissioned job last year, when the French government hired him.

On September 22, 1993, Leo produced three abstract renderings of French scenes from photos, a deal set up by his on-again, off-again Chicago-based agent, Jerry Sacks, with the French government's tourism office. It hosted a party at Chicago's Hotel Inter-Continental, where for $6,000 Leo painted his impressions of French landmarks and landscapes in La Tour, La Montagne, and Le Soleil on a raised stage while a group of 400 people watched as they dined. "It was a great thing for us," Adrian says.

After Leo's "performance" that night, which was closed to the media, the seventh-grader received news coverage of movie-star magnitude. Five days later a Voice of America broadcast mentioned Leo and his work. On October 31, a Chicago Sun-Times profile described Leo as a "prodigy" and a marvel of the art world. On November 15, Leo appeared via satellite on CBS Morning News with Harry Smith. By November 27, five local news programs had either mentioned Leo and his work or run features on him. In January 1994, the Washington Post ran a story on the growing popularity of children's art and cited Leo as a child artist who'd attained "national recognition." In March the National Enquirer brought Leo to the attention of tabloid readers with a photo and a rehash of the Sun-Times story.

But Adrian wants more. He "wants to make a billion dollars" with his son's work, and believes Leo can be "bigger than that purple dinosaur, Barney." He dreams of deals with Sesame Street, Spielberg, and Disney. Any of these, Adrian contends, could lead to Leo's own animation series and "about $2.5 million." Adrian envisions Leo painting on CBS Sunday Morning or showing Barbara Walters around the Artists' Refuge on ABC's 20/20. Hoping to promote Leo, Adrian and a small band of agent-friends have written letters, made calls, or visited the producers for these shows and others. The kitchen where Leo paints in the winter also serves as Leo Headquarters for Adrian. Many of his letters begin like his latest, to NPR commentator Andrei Codrescu: "I am pleased to have the opportunity to present you with a brief overview on the life and accomplishments of this extraordinary young boy. . . . I have enclosed a press kit and videos." And because "I want to depersonalize myself and my involvement," Adrian says, he signs these letters "Jerry Sacks." Under the current arrangement, Adrian works for Sacks. "It's another great deal--Sacks handles all up-front costs, takes 35 percent, and pays me to do this."

Adrian has even tried to move his son's work in Asia. Last December he wrote the Japanese consulate here in Chicago to see if they could help promote Leo's paintings in Japan. Like the producers of 20/20 and CBS Sunday Morning, the consulate wished Adrian good luck but declined to help. Adrian is far from discouraged, though: A Current Affair Extra and the USA Network will visit the Artists' Refuge sometime within the next two months to do stories on Leo. Adrian says he did not contact A Current Affair or USA. "Their researchers must have read about Leo," he says.

As the number of lights, cameras, mikes, tape recorders, and satellite linkups around Leo have increased, so have the number of concerned observers. For the adolescent boy and his work they offer nothing but support and praise; for the middle-aged father and his management, the best they offer is skepticism and hope.

"Leo's work is provocative," says Ruth Horwich, one of the most respected collectors of modern art in the country--a founding board member of the Museum of Contemporary Art and a member of the 20th Century Commission at the Art Institute of Chicago. "I am attracted to his use of color and form. He's very good, very talented. The art world should pay him close attention." Last May, when Horwich visited a show at the Artists' Refuge, she purchased a Leo Ionita original. An abstract Chewer now hangs in her Chicago home alongside work by Picasso, Dubuffet, Miro, and other modern masters.

Genevieve Antonow, who for the last four years has shopped around Chicago for paintings on behalf of several galleries in her native Paris, agrees that Leo is an "astonishing talent" and calls him a "prodigy." But she also fears Leo is "being pushed too hard."

"The parents are ready for Leo to be a success, to have his paintings exhibited in galleries. I just don't know if Leo is," she says. "Before I would do anything [to introduce him to galleries], I'd wait to see what's best for Leo."

Antonow met the Ionitas last September. She heard about Leo from a friend who ran the French government's dinner party. Because she's known the family only for a short time, she says "it's hard to see right now" whether the "situation is being exploited." She does speak reverently about Adrian, though: "He is a real artist. He is a nurturing force. I just think Romania, his experience with communism, has given him a drive to succeed. Maybe this is a way to look at it."

She was the one, she says, who recommended that Adrian enroll Leo in the program at the Art Institute funded by the Marwen Foundation, which provides supplies and education to talented students at no cost to the students' families. Adrian investigated, and Leo began classes in February.

Horwich, who has befriended many artists and watched them develop, grudgingly admits that she has misgivings about how the attention and the money will affect Leo and Adrian. She hopes Adrian will prevent anything from interfering with Leo's life and work. "Now [the attention] seems to be encouraging Leo to do even more paintings," she says. "It seems to be acting as inspiration. That may change--let's hope that [his good work] continues."

Adrian concedes that his life of poverty, oppression, and fear in Romania might influence the decisions he makes for his son. He says he knows that many of his friends and other people around him question his decisions. But he sees nothing wrong with Leo making money for his work. He's proud that Leo has a wallet filled with fives and tens.

"Go ahead, show it," Adrian says to Leo.

"What?"

"That, you know what." Adrian points to a leather wallet on the kitchen table between them.

"Why?"

"'Cause I tell you."

Leo sighs and picks up the brown leather wallet. He holds it out from his body, arms extended, head turned.

"Some think selling would be detrimental for a kid, but it's not," Adrian insists. "It provides motivation. He sees the checks coming in, and he sees art is not cheap. We need a lot of money to supply him." Each of the huge canvases Leo uses costs between $150 and $250--and Leo has gone through 12 canvases in a single day. The tubes of acrylic paint that he scatters around him while he works cost on average $12 apiece.

Adrian is quick to cite Andy Warhol and Peter Max as artists who "broke the mold" of the starving artist. These were the first artists, he bellows, who loved "big green piles of money." Society has made it seem wrong for an artist to live comfortably, he adds. "It's as if you have to be crazy, or poor, or cut off your ear to be respected!"

Picasso sold his paintings for large amounts of money, he says emotionally, and no one condemned him--because he was talented. It's OK to charge high prices if you're good, Adrian contends.

Leo says he's never felt any pressure from anyone to paint, and it's apparent that in many ways he's very much like most young boys. In fact a friend says that Leo recently got in trouble for shooting spitballs in class. Leo likes to play with his racing cars and track, he can't get enough of video games, and he loves chocolates and fresh-baked bread. He says he gladly would have accepted more of the Hotel Inter-Continental's French bread instead of the $6,000 payment: "They had such good bread there. I'd like to go back, not to paint, just to eat."

The recent show-biz glamour seems not to have changed Leo, according to his best friend Edgar. "Yeah, everybody kinda knows about his paintings," he says without turning from the TV as he and Leo pop sunflower seeds and watch Star Trek: The Next Generation. "They're kinda weird, but Leo's cool."

Despite the media attention, Leo still sees with the untainted eyes of a child, a vision many adult artists struggle their entire lives to attain or maintain. Once the concept of media attention is explained to him, Leo shrugs, smiles, and says, "I appreciate it, and even kind of like it."

And although Leo is just as grateful as Adrian for the money he has received, it has never been the reason he paints. Leo paints when he's bored; he paints when he comes home from school. He paints on cold Saturday nights. Leo paints because he can and because he "loves to."

"You don't have to do it for the money," he says. "But hey, if you could do something and get paid for it, wouldn't you do it?"

When he does put on his painting duds and pick up a brush, his ideas come from a variety of sources, none of them as intellectual or sophisticated as those who buy his paintings may think. He draws most of his inspiration from TV and video games. And Pac-Man started it all.

"When I used to ride with my dad from Hinsdale [to the studio] I would play Pac-Man. And I would look out the windows and see lots of bushes." The "chewers" and "barkers" that populate his paintings, he reveals, are simply abstract renditions of Pac-Man, and they are usually gobbling up the bushy landscape he saw on those drives to and from the studio. A movie about jazz great Charlie Parker inspired the painting of the amoebalike saxophone player and his moody hues.

The hybrid education Leo has received affects the disjointed and distorted images in his paintings. The at-home art training his father tries to give him, explaining perspective and proportion by lining up cups, salt and pepper shakers, and a bottle on the table, and the schools of MTV and other pop culture compete for space in all of Leo's works.

Leo himself says he has no idea what his creations represent. He tells no specific story. "It's all my imagination, I just go ahead and start. I don't worry about what it is." Making sense and making money are afterthoughts for Leo. "My paintings are, like, you know, the stuff you want to keep to yourself."

Bare trees rattle like bones on the kitchen windows, jarring the Ionitas and their visitor out of their trance. It's getting late--dinner has long been over. All that's left are a tiny morsel of goat cheese, which the owner of the corner deli gave to Leo, and a small amount of cabbage.

Adrian is explaining how the Marwen program will be such a good experience for Leo. Leo is fiddling with a joy buzzer, with which he later zaps his guest's hand, and a huge butcher knife. Elena is making coffee. The smoke from Adrian's cigar funnels up to the exposed pipes and air ducts. The feeling in the hazy room is uncertain and slow.

"For me, my involvement, it's trying to get him closer to himself," Adrian says through the smoke. "To get him to understand himself and the world of art. I know that the most dangerous thing I can do is plant my seed in the mind of someone else. With everything I do, I don't want to change Leo."

After a second round of coffee and moonshine and much talk about art, philosophy, isms, and money, and long after Elena has snatched the knife from her son and mumbled to him in Romanian, the conversation becomes much simpler.

Leo has just explained how he knows when he's finished a painting and what can happen if he overworks it: "Sometimes, once in a while, it looks good and finished and I keep working on it, and after a while it gets worse. Then I know I overworked it.

"It's like if you take a person and you work him, you might get him stronger. But if you overwork him, you get him weaker."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Mike Tappin.

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