Coloring Outside the Lines

Larry Lebby refines his unique style



South Carolina native, Larry Lebby, is a nationally collected artist who began his career using merely a ballpoint pen.

Photography by Jeff Amberg

Larry Lebby can’t remember a time when he wasn’t creating. Now a successful international artist whose works have adorned the hallowed walls of the Vatican as well as the South Carolina Capitol building, he fondly recalls his humble beginnings. 

“I remember my older brothers came home from school one day, and they were drawing in the sand,” he says. “When they left, I ran over and tried to trace the drawings they had done. That’s where it all began.”

These simple, primordial strokes across the sand roused Larry’s imagination, perhaps in the same way that humanity’s artistic proclivity was first discovered thousands of years ago. Drawing images in the sand — and naming them — was part entertainment, part play. In school, the teachers would sometimes give the students mimeograph sheets to draw on; Larry noticed his classmates colored in the lines and kept their drawings neat.

 “I could never seem to stay inside the borders. I would always add all different colors too,” he explains. “It drove the teachers batty trying to figure out what was going on with me.”

It wasn’t long before Larry’s teachers, observing his eye for color and design, started asking him to decorate their bulletin boards. Yet even this recognition did not alert Larry of the exciting opportunities that lay ahead through his penchant for creating which, somewhere along the way, turned into artistic aspirations. Attending a school that didn’t offer art classes, Larry says he jumped at the chance to integrate to Airport High School when his ninth grade teacher broached the subject.

“I was one of the first ones to say I wanted to go to Airport because they had art courses,” he says. Harriet Gottlief, his art teacher at Airport, taught Larry about color and design, and opened up what he describes as a whole new world for him. 

At Allen University for two years of his undergraduate work, Larry studied under renowned Cuban sculptor Lopez Mason. “He wanted me to know everything there was to know about human anatomy,” Larry says. “He would walk around the classroom as we were drawing, and when he would wipe his head with his handkerchief, we knew he was getting kind of upset. His attention to detail was right on key.”

For the next two years, Larry attended the University of South Carolina on a partial art scholarship and where he also studied for his Master of Fine Arts, finishing in 1976. After an exhibition of his work at the Columbia Museum of Art, which received a significant turnout, he began to think he might be able to earn his living through art. “I thought to myself, ‘There’s a chance for me to do what I love.’”

Early in his career, he used a ballpoint pen to draw a portrait of President Jimmy Carter, and it hung in the White House during Carter’s presidency. Larry says one local reporter referred to his use of ballpoint pen as a “fable,” and a professor told him it would be difficult to convey much detail with the ballpoint. Refusing to be confined to traditional techniques, Larry experienced the opposite outcome.

 “I always try to experiment with different mediums,” he says, adding that it took him a while to achieve what he wanted with the ballpoint pen. “To get different values, I would allow very little ink to seep from the point as I was drawing. It took a long time to get to the point where I could control it.” 

One problem he encountered early on was that fibers from the paper would collect on the pen’s point, so he began to consistently stop to wipe the pen as he drew. He also experimented with berries, boiling them and using them as paint. He tried Worcestershire sauce too, which didn’t prove as fruitful. “I push the envelope sometimes. Some ideas work, and some are flat tires,” he says with a chuckle.

Over the years, Larry’s pieces have been collected by many noteworthy people. The late Gregory Peck, Oprah Winfrey, James Earl Jones and Eddie Murphy are just some of Larry’s memorable collectors. Larry’s work has been shown in the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., the Newark Museum in New Jersey, the White House, the Russell Senate Office Building in the Rotunda and at the World Bank. His most recent showings have been at the St. Louis University of Art in Missouri, the Rice University Museum of Art in Texas, the University of Maryland Art Museum and the U.S. Embassy of Manila Art Exhibit held by Harry L. Thomas, Jr. in the Philippines.

Evelyn Braxton, Larry’s cousin, hasn’t been surprised by his creativity and success. She noticed his gift when he was a young child. “He was always different. There was a uniqueness about him that only God could give,” she recalls. A resident of Atlanta and the mother of pop singer Toni Braxton, Evelyn says artistic talent runs in the family; Toni’s children can paint well too.

While she couldn’t put her finger on what made Larry stand out as a young artist, she noticed his intuition and work ethic. When friends visit her home, they’re amazed by his work, and she proudly tells them it’s Cousin Larry’s. “This could not be taught,” Evelyn asserts. “It comes from deep within. It comes from the heart.”

This past year, Larry was commissioned to paint a portrait that required him to dig especially deep — the portrait of Sen. Clementa Pinckney who was killed at the Mother Emanuel AME Church shooting in Charleston in June 2015. Having met Sen. Pinckney around the time he was elected in 2001, Larry remembered his “infectious smile.” While he felt honored to be asked to paint the portrait, he knew it was a mammoth task. Larry met with Jennifer, Clementa’s wife, and two daughters to build a relationship with them as he ultimately wanted the portrait to reflect the role of husband and father as well as senator and minister.

In his preliminary work, he also visited Mother Emanuel AME and wandered around. “I wanted to feel what Sen. Pinckney felt when he walked into that environment. It was important to me to learn as much as I could from people who were close to him,” Larry explains. “I wanted people to view the portrait and see who he was and where he came from.”

He decided to position Sen. Pinckney — wearing a black suit, red tie and South Carolina lapel pin — in front of Emanuel’s stained-glass windows in the portrait. Not only did he capture that infectious smile, Larry says he also felt as if Sen. Pinckney was with him while he worked on the painting. It now hangs in the Senate chamber at the Statehouse in Columbia.

A federal judge in South Carolina as well as Larry’s friend and supporter, Margaret Seymour, says one of his gifts is capturing the personality and feeling of his subjects. “Larry’s very concerned about what he’s doing and tries to know the subject matter well,” she says. “He cares a lot, and his work is so realistic. Who or whatever he’s painting seems like it could just come off the page, like the person’s in the room.”

Another subject he gravitates toward is nature. Brenda Thompson was introduced to his work through her husband, Larry Thompson, a former United States attorney. “His art is visually engaging. He draws from the beauty of natural surroundings,” Brenda says. “Someone else may see a landscape and say, ‘That’s nice’ and move on, but not Larry. My husband and I have been touched by his work.”

Larry says he’s never lost the willingness to grow and try new things, which he argues is critical for both aspiring artists and professionals. “Always be willing to develop and to experience all that life has to offer,” he says, adding that it’s important to spend time in museums and take an interest in the work of other artists to be successful.

 “It’s fun to look at how other artists create. I can always learn something new.”