Meet the master craftsman quietly carving world-renowned art from his Garrettsville shop

Image of Joe Leonard working on a carving at his workshop table
Joe Leonard uses a hand chisel to carve the details of a pegasus wing in his workshop. J. Leonard Custom Woodcarving. Carter Eugene Adams

Joe Leonard has created massive carousel figures featured at Disneyland Paris and Put-In-Bay. Visitors to his gallery are ‘blown away,’ he says.

Nineteenth century furniture and 1990s nostalgia line a gravel driveway on state Route 88. A fiberglass tiger peeks out from one of the many sheds grouped together around the crescent-shaped drive, marking the entrance to one of Garrettsville’s best hidden treasures.

Walking into J Leonard Gallery, guests find themselves surrounded by ornate works of art ranging from detailed pet portraits, intricate hand-blown glass pieces and hand-forged metal works, to towering carved carousel animals. These animals include a draft horse and a giraffe, nearly as tall as the ceiling, inspired by the show Avatar. The latter pieces being the work of the gallery’s owner, Joe Leonard. 

Leonard is a master craftsman who for the last 50 years has devoted his career and art to the restoration and creation of carousel creatures. He specializes in unique pieces for individual clients, but at least 19 international museums have also showcased his work. Internationally, Leonard’s carousel pieces are on display in Lebanon, Thailand, Canada and France, where the main carousel of Disneyland Paris houses Leonard’s greatest undertaking: 17 unique hand-carved carousel horses produced in just over a year and a half. 

Joe Leonard fans out the outline of a pegasus wing while preparing to carve in his workshop, J. Leonard Custom Woodcarving. Carter Eugene Adams/The Portager

Leonard has a workshop where he works to build the creations which have gained him accolades and the gallery which he shares in operating with his longtime friend Liz, whose pet portrait studio and jewelry displays occupy the front of the gallery. 

Perhaps most notable though is Leonard’s devotion to his community and attempt to put art back in the hands of people looking to learn a craft. Along with being a craftsman and gallery owner, he’s also on the Garrettsville Freedom Nelson Joint Fire District Board and is entering his 12th year as a Nelson Township Trustee. 

The Portager sat down with Leonard in his gallery earlier this year to discuss how the craftsman got his start, how he feels about his work and what the future holds for the storied carpenter. The interview is edited slightly for clarity.

Tell me a bit about the Disneyland carousel.

That was probably the largest project I’ve ever had, and [I] could not have done it without help. Because it was a crash project, a very rewarding one. I mean the carousel’s ridden by more dignitaries and international folks around the world than any other machine and probably the largest carousel horses in the world. I think they were seven foot long, six and a half feet tall. And they weighed 250 pounds apiece. [I had] the opportunity to go over there in ’92, just before the park opened, [take] a video and take pictures. 

Most of the pieces I’ve done are for individuals; there’s a five foot Lake Erie perch on the carousel up on Put-In-Bay I did many years ago. It’s a long process. There are no shortcuts to speak of on those things. 

Joe Leonard uses a hand chisel to carve the details of a pegasus wing in his workshop. Carter Eugene Adams/The Portager

You mentioned early on that you worked in ad sales and then you’ve just sort of done some wood restoration on a couple of pegasus legs. So how did a little bit of restoration on a set of legs turn into all of this?

Well, I was doing three dimensional stuff for the advertising field. I was doing TV props, I was doing the carvings of different things and creating things for magazine covers and ads and so on. And then [I got] involved in two woodcarving clubs. There was a publication, Carousel News and Trader. I took an ad in that, and I started getting all kinds of repair work. I was hoping to sell new stuff. But at that time, there was so much of the antique stuff available at reasonable prices and they were curious. So more people were getting in, they had nowhere to go to get these things restored. So I was doing a lot of that. And then when the prices started going through the roof on things, people couldn’t afford a $40- or $50- or $60,000 [piece]. So they would come to me thankfully, and some of them wanted copies of old ones. I kind of did some copies, but most of the ones I designed, I didn’t want to do duplicates of somebody else’s work. We had the advantage of referring to the old pieces for reference. I mean, those guys were incredible. 

So this work from taking out ads, that happened in the early ’80s and by the top of the ’90s you were working on this 17-horse project for Disney. That’s pretty incredible, a quick rise there. 

Oh, it didn’t feel very quick, but it’s been a long, hard haul. We started this gallery five years ago and we started with seven artists. Now we’re up to 35 or 36, and then we kept adding outbuildings for vintage items, we’re up to six of those now. We [Leonard and Liz] decided we needed a gallery because she needed a place to show her work plus all this jewelry that she carries. It’s kind of a hobby gone crazy, and plus an area for her to work and to be able to show my stuff. The other thing was to give other local artists an opportunity to sell their work at a reasonable fee. We do 30%, which is low compared to a lot of galleries. That’s what I believe in. There’s a lot of talent in the area and not that they’re necessarily artists; the one guy who does our segments and bowls is a retired postal worker. 

We’re very selective on what comes through the door. We both have to agree on stuff before we’ll take it on, but I think as you can see, most of everything is pretty good quality. I mean, you’re not setting the world on fire. But we’re OK. You know, we’re out in the middle of nowhere kind of, but this year, particularly this past year, we’ve been getting a lot of just people out driving around the countryside looking for something to do and they see our place and stop in. I put a lot into this place. It looked a little bit like a gas station-type building. When I first got it, I built the carriage doors and put the engines on and put the wheelchair ramp and we went above and beyond what we had to do. But I wanted to try to make the place look inviting, which I think it has turned into. At least I hope so.

Various pieces of locally sourced art sit on display and for sale. Carter Eugene Adams/The Portager

On the one hand it sort of feels like that, that “Midwest cozy,” where at the same time you have these magnificent pieces of work in here. It’s really interesting.

Thanks, it’s kind of, we all need an attaboy once in a while, and like I said, most people who come in are just blown away by the place. “We didn’t realize this was here. We didn’t realize what was in there. This is a lot bigger in here than we thought it was.” And we get a lot of repeat stuff, too. But word of mouth has been our best. We’ve taken ads in different places, which have been minimally, minimally successful. 

I was just wondering, you’ve been doing this for 50 years. I mean, you must like it

Joe Leonard poses with his latest creation, a hand carved Giraffe inspired by the T.V. show Avatar in his gallery, J. Leonard Custom Woodcarving. Carter Eugene Adams

It’s also called survival. Yeah, we among the self employed, we lead a little different life. We, even being an artist, we look at the world a little differently than the rest, and it is a tough way to go. But we’ve survived it and paid the bills. I mean, I enjoy some of it. Some of it, I don’t. I’m being more and more selective in what I’m doing. I’m trying to be more selective and slow down a bit. I have slowed down not because of wanting to but because as you get older you actually go this pace. Oh, it’s kind of fun, because it’s almost like a mini show every day we open up here, you know, and the people that come through have been great. 

I go to St. Ambrose church in town here, and I was approached about a year ago. The baptismal font was a square, boxy, you know, from 30 some years ago and it was getting kind of beat up. “Can you do a descending dove for that?” So I looked at it, I go, “Hey, no, we need new ones.” And so I did that. And then I said, you know, we need the new lectern to go along with this. So I created that. And then there’s five seasons of the church so there’s different symbols on the front of the lectern. They’re interchangeable with the seasons of the mass, the church. So I did that. And then a couple years prior to that, I did a lamb symbol for the altar that was there, but I left it temporary. So after that, I created the altar for the church, a new altar and all the symbols and stuff on it, and put the lamb on that one. And then after that, “Geez, we need a priest chair to go with this.” I told Father, “You better say some extra blessings on that one.” So I built the priest’s chair, I needed it to go with everything else. I revamped the processional cross and something else I did there, I forget now, but anyhow, the whole front is all totally different from what it used to be. And I donated all that stuff. I had some people, you know, throw some donations in, which was minimal, but I look at it as a calling and it needs to be done. And I’m the one that could do it. So I did it. And it was very rewarding doing so. And people are most appreciative of it. 

I’ve been able to do most of everything people have wanted done, you know, and I’m very blessed with it. But I think I left my mark at St. Ambrose.

It seems like you know, you certainly helped your community.

Yeah, and I’ve given a lot of talks and lectures and presentations to the schools and stuff. I figure, it’s part of giving back. I did one for my grandkids years ago, I did seven presentations in one day down in Grand Lake St. Mary’s and my granddaughter was in first grade at that time. She’s now 18.

We had a 30-minute documentary video of carving the lead horse for Disney I play. It’s pretty dated, of course, clothing wise, and my long-haired hippie freak or degenerate days. They were just mesmerized. We showed how we did the lead horse and segments and put it together like a giant— they’re basically a giant puzzle is what they are. And kind of made all the pieces fit.

There are probably at least close to 100 pieces. And each one of them, where the bodies are, are hollow. It’s called the coffin method, but their method to the madness is they expand and contract with the temperature, humidity and weather changes. It’s also a weight factor as well, that the others are these horses that I did for Disney went around 250 pounds a piece. And they’re the heaviest and biggest out there. So they had to, we had to weigh them to let them know so their engineers could engineer the carousel accordingly to compensate. 

Joe Leonard inspects the head of a custom armored pegasus in his workshop. Carter Eugene Adams/The Portager

So, you had talked about those days where you don’t like what you do — what do you still like about it? 

Challenge is a big one. When I was working on doing a workshop at Woodcraft fund, a guy comes in when we’re working on dragon heads: “Well, that doesn’t look like a dragon.” Can you show me a real dragon and we’ll make one. And the same with a unicorn. Of course the unicorn is a horse basically with a horn on it. But show me— I mean, I’ve got two of my portfolio are two different types of unicorns. They have flowers and vines on them and stuff. And like I said, with the dragons, I’ve got books on dragonology and so on. I’ve got books on them and mythologies and so on. 

But my part I think I like is creating. The reward and all this to me is somebody is willing to spend that kind of money to purchase one of my creations is always a good thing, or it’s a compliment at the most I think. Because my pieces aren’t cheap. I’ve never billed myself as cheap. But when I do a piece I always put more into it than what I anticipate, which is why I’m not a wealthy person.

I’ll do the drawing and submit a drawing to my customers, I take that and blow it up and make a pattern to size and then cut out the pieces parts and glue them up and then everything comes together. But [I like] the challenge of creating something new and unusual. I mean, how many times have you seen an armored pegasus? Never. You know, so I think I’m the first person that I know of to do an armored pegasus. 

There’s enjoyment to do all this out there. Definitely. Some days, it’s just I don’t want to be anywhere near it. I think it’s like anybody with any job, you know? But it’s always good.