These days, Shane Leonard, CSOM ’20, finds himself reaching for a paint brush instead of a pigskin. Up until his sophomore year at Boston College, Leonard spent his days on the football field—the former offensive lineman committed to play for the Eagles his junior year of high school. But a couple of years, a few too many concussions, and a clothing brand later, Leonard prefers art to the gridiron.
Leonard grew up in a football family, playing the sport at 9 years old while his father stood on the sidelines as his coach all the way up until high school. Leonard began to receive offers from colleges up and down the East Coast. A local, he grew up around an hour from BC in Marshfield, Mass., and started attending BC football camps to play for his dream school as a freshman at Marshfield High School. But Leonard has always been an Eagle at heart.
“BC was my dream school growing up …” Leonard said. “Every local kid’s dream is to come play football at Boston College.”
Finally, just before he entered his senior year of high school, the Eagles made Leonard an offer. On the spot, Leonard committed to spending his next four years playing at Alumni Stadium. Yet, after redshirting his freshman year and battling injuries the following season, his football career came to an abrupt stop in December of 2017 when concussion specialist Micky Collins of University of Pittsburgh Medical Center decided that Leonard could no longer play following his last visit to the medical center. Having sustained too many concussions, one being from a major car crash he endured in high school, Leonard was forced to cut his football career short. His concussion symptoms wouldn’t go away, but football was all he’d ever known.
“It was a little bit like a screeching halt in, like, everything I’d ever done because it’s all I knew,” Leonard said. “And then once that stopped, I really didn’t know what to do with myself, like shaved my head, started doing weird stuff, played a lot of video games…”
Ultimately, though, Leonard took a chance, one that fostered his newfound creativity before turning to painting. While studying alongside his longtime friend and roommate Mitch Bishop, CSOM ’20, the two decided to start a clothing brand. Deep into a study session, right around the time that get-rich-quick schemes start to take over a thought, Leonard turned to Bishop with the random business idea to kickstart their own brand. The pair aptly named their new business and creative venture Begin Apparel. With this, Leonard started another journey, this time with a new passion.
“[Leonard] had this, like, artistic ability inside him, but, like, he didn’t really know yet,” Bishop said. “So I think he was trying to do something with it. And yeah, we just were talking one day and just said, ‘Why don’t we just give it a shot?’”
And give it a shot they did. With Leonard trying out logo design and Bishop managing the business end of their brand, the two friends started to produce apparel—hoodies, t-shirts, and hats with the logo Leonard designed, one that simply inscribed the word “Begin” in a flowing font across the front of their apparel. While Leonard never had any formal art instruction, the beginning of his clothing brand tapped into his lifelong artistic potential.
“[In] high school, I never took any art classes,” he said. “And even here, I haven’t taken any art classes. But I’ve always been interested in it.”
Although the pair modeled their business to have Bishop strictly on the management side and Leonard working creatively, demand got the best of them, making it difficult to accurately order the appropriate sizes and turn a profit. Eventually, each ended up taking on a role in the other’s position. With multiple rounds of orders, Leonard and Bishop managed to sell a number of their pieces—mostly to friends, though they did have a few random orders through their Facebook page.
The support Begin Apparel garnered even led them to a collaboration with Laced—a minimalist, brick-and-mortar apparel company in the heart of Boston—for a fashion show. After reaching out to the store via Instagram, Begin Apparel showcased a total of eight pieces at a local bar. Though the opportunity presented itself and Leonard and Bishop ran with it, the Laced fashion show didn’t hit their target demographic—leaning more toward an older crowd than the young college students they wanted to attract.
Begin Apparel then hit a creative roadblock due to the busy schedules of two college students—and eventually, their production stopped.
“We just kind of had the logo and a few really basic items,” Bishop said. “And we wanted to start making things more creatively, but we couldn’t do any of the manufacturing on our own.”
Begin Apparel was just that: a beginning for Leonard to kickstart his creative career. In February of 2019, a mutual friend introduced Leonard to Henry Dunkelberger, a student artist and MCAS ’20, who encouraged Leonard to pick up a paint brush.
“One of my friends introduced me to Henry … we’re on, like, the same wavelength and kind of got along really well,” Leonard said. “And he was just saying, like, it seems like you’d be good at painting.”
The next day, with canvases and paint in tow, Leonard started to put paint to paper, unlocking a creative instinct he had but never capitalized on. The shift in his interests is obvious. His Instagram (@sleonxrd), once flooded with photos of Leonard geared up in gold and maroon, has shifted to humble brags of paintings he’s done. In one of his earliest artistic posts, Leonard is pictured holding a painting of a shark, which he aptly named “Sharky.”
His style is simultaneously dark, yet fantastical. “Sharky” is not your standard sea creature. In half of the painting, “Sharky” is streaked with colorful stripes on a dark, melancholy backdrop. On the other half, the painting is beautifully realistic, yet placed in front of neon green. Leonard finds a way to make his paintings seem authentic yet obscure. With a style as unique and somewhat scary as Leonard’s is, his inspiration demands explanation: Most of his paintings are influenced by vivid dreams.
The way that Leonard dreamed changed following a major accident in his life. Late one night, in the March of his senior year of high school, Leonard’s car hit black ice, flipping him and his vehicle. He pulled himself out, escaping the wreck with a concussion and a sprained wrist, but this near-death experience changed the way that Leonard dreamed.
“I have, like, crazy vivid dreams and a lot of the stuff that I see or paint or like that goes on my painting is largely influenced by my dreams and everything,” Leonard said. “Sounds weird, but like that’s what’s changed the course of my dreams and stuff.”
A prime example: a painting he’s dubbed “Carl.”
“It’s just like this blue face that I saw at one point,” Leonard said. “I named it ‘Carl’ just to make it like a little less weird.”
Wanting to show people what he saw in his dreams, Leonard painted “Carl.” The vividness of his dreams helped, because “Carl” came out on canvas exactly as he saw while dreaming, he said. But, it wasn’t “Carl” that pushed Leonard into the world of professional studio art. In the thick of applying for internships at the end of his junior year of college, Leonard’s mom took it upon herself to show his artwork to a local artist, Adam O’Day. O’Day—who has painted murals all around Massachusetts, from Walpole to Worcester to TD Garden—took Leonard on as an apprentice for the summer after Leonard showed him “Sharky.”
So, O’Day started instructing Leonard like he had never painted before, beginning with the foundational aspects of formal painting.
“I just feel like you have to do that stuff before you inject your own style into it,” O’Day said. “Eventually, when you’re painting in your own style you need a nice arsenal of skills.”
Even though O’Day started instructing Leonard with the very basics, his summer apprenticeship was anything but ordinary. Leonard attended his first NHL game by doing a live painting for Jack Daniel’s and the Bruins alongside O’Day—set up next to the Jack Daniel’s ice luge, Leonard and O’Day painted bear and a whiskey bottle surrounded by text saying “We Want the Cup.” Next to the Jack Daniel’s ice luge during Game 7 of the Stanley Cup, Leonard and O’Day completed their first commercial painting together. The Bruins lost, but Leonard got to be a part of a commercially commissioned painting in TD Garden.
Despite the business degree he will receive in May—Leonard’s majoring in marketing and information systems—O’Day doesn’t see Leonard pursuing a typical career in the corporate world. With plenty of painting commissions under his belt at less than a year into painting, Leonard’s success doesn’t lie in business, O’Day said. But for Leonard, his future is very much up in the air. When asked about his plans following graduation, he tossed out ideas like getting his own studio, going to graduate school for fine arts, or getting a job—but all of his plans involve art.
“I feel like with how far I got into it, especially this summer I’d be a fool not to keep doing art,” Leonard said.
“I probably wouldn’t have found out that I’m good at art, or painting in general [if I kept playing football],” Leonard said. “So, it’s kind of a blessing and a curse.”
Featured Image by Maggie DiPatri / Heights Editor