Franklin County Common Pleas Judge George Leach Paints for a Better Future
Leach has more than 100 paintings hanging in the courthouse on themes of diversity, inclusivity and unity. He hopes they offer a welcome diversion, and perhaps even hope, to those who pass through.
In a quiet January ceremony in courtroom 62 of the Franklin County courthouse, a large painting was unveiled. It was a gift from the artist, Judge George Leach of the court of common pleas’ domestic relations and juvenile branch, to his judicial colleague, Judge Monica Hawkins. The painting, which until this moment had been covered with brown paper, was installed directly opposite Hawkins’ bench.
When the paper came off, six athletes were revealed, painted against an orange background. In the back row were three giants of sport: Muhammad Ali, Jackie Joyner-Kersee and Jesse Owens. In the foreground were three medalists from the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, shown in an iconic moment of protest: Tommie Smith and John Carlos, gold and bronze medalists in the 200-meter race, raising black-gloved fists on the medal podium in a gesture suggestive of a Black Power salute. Silver medalist Peter Norman, a white Australian, who supported their protest, was also in the painting.
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Smith and Carlos were expelled from the Olympic games and suffered years of painful backlash over their action. Norman, too, was reportedly treated as a pariah in his home country.
Hawkins teared up when the painting was revealed. “Oh … my …” She turned to Leach, shaking her head. “Judge.”
“All of these figures at one time used their platform of sports to speak against injustice and racism. They are for justice for all,” Hawkins said, studying the painting. “This courtroom is fraught with emotion, most of the time. This is going to always be that reminder of justice in America.”
The gift, a celebration of the judges’ long friendship—Leach, elected to the bench in 2020, was a family attorney practicing in the court for almost two decades, while Hawkins, elected in 2018, had been a caseworker and a children’s services lawyer—was perhaps the most explicitly political of Leach’s works, which are displayed in hallways and courtrooms throughout the building. But many of his other works are political, too, in their own way, if only because they offer to take a youthful defendant, a downtrodden attorney or a struggling mother far from their current situation. To Columbus’ Topiary Park on a sunny day, or to an idyllic garden where a child is playing with a lamb, or to a concrete-and-brick enclosure where two sisters in tutus are finding their escape through dance. The paintings, many of them the product of Leach’s travels, show people of all ethnicities and walks of life.
Indeed, already hanging in Hawkins’ courtroom is a gallery of Leach portraits of people from various countries. “These paintings reflect what I believe in,” Hawkins says, gesturing in their direction. “Inclusivity. Diversity. Unity. Oneness.”
All of the paintings—more than 100 of them throughout the building, Leach says—are on indefinite loan to the courthouse. Leach has been building this collection for nearly two decades. For people who come to the family court—families in crisis, teens in trouble, couples at odds—Leach hopes that the paintings will offer diversion. Empathy. Entertainment. Beauty. An opportunity for reflection. Maybe even hope.
George Leach’s path to becoming a judge and courthouse artist-in-residence was not direct. Raised in Youngstown, where his father worked in a steel mill and his parents divorced when he was 10, Leach worked in sales throughout high school and college (The Athlete’s Foot would ultimately send him around the country to help open new stores), then in purchasing (he served as a deputy Ohio Department of Transportation director), and then as a substitute teacher (he got his K-through-8 teaching certification from Ohio Dominican).
It was a 1994 bicycle wreck that inspired Leach to take up art. His forehead and chin had to be reconstructed, and during a long recovery, he began teaching himself to paint. He only took a few lessons; the teacher told him he had talent and just needed to practice. Leach painted throughout law school, which he finished in two years, and opened a law office Downtown in 2001, working on juvenile and adult criminal defense cases and as a court-appointed lawyer. Next to his office, at 112 E. Main St., a block from the courthouse, he set up a combination studio and gallery. (The gallery will be open to the public from 1 to 5 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays in March.)
These days, Leach goes home to Bexley at the end of each workday for dinner with his husband and their twin 14-year-old boys. Then he returns to the studio to paint from 9 until midnight. He paints quickly and prolifically. In addition to the 100-plus paintings in the courthouse, he sells his work through the Sharon Weiss Gallery in the Short North and has paintings out on loan in other locations as well. He occasionally hosts shows in his gallery, featuring both his own work and that of others, and hangs a rotating selection of paintings in the front windows to entertain passersby.
How does he manage to create so much? “I dream,” Leach says. “You can’t create unless you dream. … The worst thing we have in our community, for me, working with kids, is they don’t dream about the future. They don’t see themselves getting old, even. For me, making art … is a way to help them dream toward the future. To think of yourself as more than what tragedy [you’re] in here at the courthouse. Whether it’s ‘my parents are drug addicts’ or ‘I’m in trouble.’ It’s to get them to think beyond that, because there is a future for them.”
Leach is working to create opportunities for adjudicated youth in the county’s juvenile detention facility—he calls it the youth intervention center—to make their own art to hang in the courthouse.
“I dreamt when I was a kid, all the time. That’s why I didn’t think there was anything I couldn’t conquer. I knew I could paint—so I just did it.”
At the building Leach owns at the corner of Third and Main, where his private law office used to be, there are signs hanging in the second-story windows. “Art is Wisdom,” they say. “Art is Truth.”
Is he trying to change the world? “It’s the best way I have,” Leach says.
This story is from the March 2022 issue of Columbus Monthly.