By Sarah Sabatke

Leon Thomas sitting at a desk working on the painting of Johnston Residence Hall
Leon Thomas works on the painting of Eva Johnston and Johnston Hall. Photo by Sam O’Keefe/University of Missouri.

Thanks to the talents of senior Leon Thomas, the Department of Residential Life is receiving some colorful artwork.

Thomas has been working with Residential Life to create watercolor paintings of MU residence halls and the historic buildings’ namesakes. Thomas said he got the idea after a celebration at Bluford Hall. The hall is named in honor of Lucile Bluford, a renowned journalist and civil rights icon from Kansas City, Missouri.

“I was like, ‘Wouldn’t it be so cool to paint Bluford and paint her actual photo of her face with the residence hall?’” Thomas said.

So far, Thomas has painted Bluford and is working on a painting for Johnston Hall. The latter hall’s namesake, Eva Johnston, graduated from MU in 1892 and went on to become a professor and a leader for women at Mizzou. Thomas uses old photographs he finds online as references. His goal is to make the watercolor portraits as realistic as possible, but he’s not afraid to be creative.

a painting of Eva Johnston, wearing a cap and gown, standing next to Johnston residence hall
Eva Johnston, painted by Thomas, stands outside Johnston Hall. Photo by Sam O’Keefe/University of Missouri.

“Bluford is purple, and Johnston is blue and kind of orangey,” he said. “It’s also helpful because usually, the photos are black and white, and I can’t tell what colors to put where, so I just kind of guess.”

a painting of Lucile Bluford standing next to Bluford Residence Hall
Thomas’ painting for Bluford Hall depicts Lucile Bluford, a journalist and civil rights icon. Photo by Sam O’Keefe/University of Missouri.

Thomas started working as a desk attendant with the Department of Residential Life after his sophomore year. As he got to know his co-workers, he began to share his interest in art and bring in projects to work on during downtime.

Support from his friends and co-workers has been instrumental when stress kicks in.

Using watercolor paints can be nerve-wracking because mistakes are especially difficult to correct. The project is also time-consuming. The first painting took him about a semester to complete. However, Thomas says the sense of pride that comes from completing a painting makes it all worthwhile — and Thomas has a list of more residence halls he’d like to paint before graduation.

“The feeling of just getting it on paper is motivating in itself,” he said. “It feels good to just get it down on paper and really zone out.”

Thomas, from Chesterfield, Missouri, chose to double major in digital storytelling and film production after trying several different programs. He gravitates toward creating visual media. “I am a lot more comfortable behind the screen than in front of it,” Thomas said.

Through his art classes and his work with Residential Life, Thomas says he has learned what art he prefers to create and how to manage his time through the production process.

“I love researching old historical illuminated manuscripts and just really trying to recreate what I can through that,” he said.

As for post-graduation plans, Thomas is leaving the door wide open and considering a range of options — like animation at Pixar or freelance videography.

“It’s almost taken for granted how many opportunities that we have here if you just get out and look for them,” Thomas said. “I’m so excited to graduate and really get out there and start my actual life.”

Live, Learn & Thrive
The MU Department of Residential Life provides a world-class housing experience that engages students within an innovative and educational environment that supports best on-campus housing practices and promotes student success. Learn more about Residential Life.
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