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Strokes of Genius

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Self-trained artist and savvy businessman Lionel Milton comes home to open his own gallery

Seven months ago, upon returning from a yearlong stint in New York’s East Village designing TV backdrops for Viacom and cartoon characters for the Gotham Group, artist Lionel Milton opened his gallery, Elleone, in the lower Garden District, on a strip of Magazine Street that boasts an eclectic blend of specialty shops, galleries and eateries. Elleone Gallery is housed in an old bank building with stoned walls and high columns. Vibrant paintings grace nearly every inch of wall space. Lionel’s unique style is at once rootsy, organic and funky. Inspired by New Orleans music, architecture and culture, his art blends the exaggerated strokes of graffiti—learned as a 14-year-old skate kid trolling the streets of the French Quarter—with a cubist style, surprising movement and saturated color.

Growing up in the Ninth Ward in a two-bedroom house that was home to six other family members, there was no TV, few toys and an abundance of long days. Not the easiest of beginnings, but you would never suspect it from the energy and passion that spills forth from this soulful artist and savvy businessman. “I never felt like woe is me,” Lionel said one Friday afternoon when I visited him at his new gallery. “It’s all relative. We made lemonade out of lemons.”
Such a positive outlook undoubtedly contributed to Lionel’s successes. Disciplined and conscientious, he taught himself to draw and paint, realizing early on that understanding business and management were crucial to the art of marketing himself.

When did you discover the artist in you?
My first creative piece was a sculpture when I was 5. My grandmother read Noah’s Ark to me. Everything she read, I made out of Play-Doh.

Did your parents encourage you artistically?
They did the best they could to provide clothes and food. But I remember my mom and I would tear open paper bags. I’d take a K&B pencil and draw on a Schwegmann bag. Those were my art supplies.

What drove you to stay on the right track and become the successful artist and businessperson that you are?
Determination. I didn’t have a great education. My dad was in the military, so traveling at a young age [before his parents divorced] opened my eyes. I learned that you can second line, you can paint, draw, play music. But you’d better also understand the business part.

What formal training have you had?
None. I always wanted to draw and paint, not sit in class. I knew what I wanted to do. Get up everyday and create. I just practice all the time.

What inspires you?
Music inspires me. My favorite, besides John Coltrane, is New Orleans brass band music. A lot of my paintings incorporate music.

How did your artwork evolve from graffiti to what you’re doing now?
Once I became comfortable with my own style, I was able to build upon it, develop it and make it better, broadening what I could do.

Who are some of your artistic influences?
The person who’s influenced my work the most creatively is Mode 2, an African artist who grew up in France. He went from doing graffiti to creating very detailed paintings. I love Picasso, Toulouse Lautrec; and in a business sense, Russell Simmons. Like anyone who’s pioneered something, who took a thought, had other people believe in that thought, and it resonated and became something real, I have a vision.
National companies like MTV, BET and Sony have licensed your art. And you’ve created the official poster for the Voodoo Music Festival for the past five years. Tell me more about what you’ve done on a local level?
Atronic, the world’s second-largest gaming company, licensed four of my annual Mardi Gras posters for slot machines. Right now you can go to Harrah’s and see my series of slots called Lady Orleans. I created the logo and pink house for Brad Pitt’s Make It Right T-shirt and poster. This year and the past four years, I created the image for WWOZ’s Piano Night T-shirt and poster. I designed Q93’s new logo, and most recently, worked with NOMA’s Art in Bloom, and painted the backdrop for the V-Day play at the CAC.

What can we expect to see from you in the future?
More colorful, original artwork that makes people feel good.
I’ll be 80 years old, lifting up my hand [to the canvas], and what’s in my mind I’ll push out. I’ll do this on the porch all day. Real simple.