WEVONNEDA MINIS: Talented glass artist had zest for life

Herman Leonhardt

A recent Friday afternoon found Grace Scampini filling a special order for 150 dark chocolate brownies. That's about three times the number Scampini, who sells her brownies at the Charleston Farmers Market, normally makes on a Friday afternoon.

Scampini, who owns Grace's Kitchen, knows she can count on certain people to be among those buying her brownies for breakfast or snacks. One of her best customers was Herman Leonhardt, who always came to chat and buy five brownies to eat and share with other vendors.

However, the brownies Scampini was making that Friday afternoon would not be eaten by Leonhardt on Saturday. They would be eaten by his friends on Sunday as they remembered him during a service at his Branchville home on the banks of the Edisto River.

Leonhardt, a self-taught glass artist who sold his swamp art -- dynamic colorful bowls, light fixtures and other accessories -- at the farmers market in Marion Square for more than a decade, died at 63 on Aug. 1.

He was born in Maryland, but grew up in Columbia, where he graduated from Eau Claire High School. Afterward, he volunteered for the Air Force and spent four years in Vietnam. He went on to

earn an engineering degree from Columbia's Midlands Technical College and helped build radio broadcast towers around South Carolina.

"I had never seen any kind of artwork like that before," Scampini says, recalling the first time she saw his pieces. "I just thought it was unbelievable. He's done some beautiful work."

In his artist's statement, Leonhardt said, "Nature has always been the biggest influence on my work; the freedom, color, and contrast is always with me. ... Working in my shop on the Edisto River bank allows a view of the abundant wildlife and the beauty of nature even as I work. ... I hope to add color and beauty to many people's lives."

The swamp was the perfect environment for Leonhardt, says friend Leslie Sinclair.

"He always said he wanted to be a wild man -- indeed he was. He built everything on his land himself, from carrying the logs out of the river by johnboat to planting them to putting them on his house and shops. ... Since he was a nature man, he almost always displayed his glass in cypress knees and wood from the swamp."

Karen Meadows, Leonhardt's daughter, says people will miss her dad most because he was a real character.

"He was so honest and funny and bizarre and crazy. He was so full of life. He would enjoy telling people he was alien."

Leonhardt's passions, she says, were his dogs and the farmers market.

"He raised Chesapeake Bay retrievers," says Meadows. "Many people in Charleston have dogs from his litter. He was very picky and kept in touch with them.

"He went to the market for shrimp and grits, the brownies and strawberry ice cream and to look at girls with short dresses and cowboy boots," she says laughing.

"He was a really generous person. He was dark chocolate obsessed. Saffron's had a chocolate mousse cake and about once a month he would drive down to buy it. He would give half to a lady friend who is ill and in Branchville and couldn't get down to Charleston."

Her father, a member of the South Carolina Artisans Center, made glass vases with glass flowers in them. She recalls an incident in which a little girl was admiring one at the center and accidentally caused it to fall and break.

"The center called to tell him (Leonhardt). He asked if there was one flower that was not broken. He told them to give it to the little girl and tell her not to worry about it."

Meadows says her father didn't mind the frequent comparisons between his work and that of internationally known glass artist Dale Chihuly. "He'd say Chihuly made it possible for him to sell his art."

Leonhardt's pieces, which cost from about $700 to $2,000, are sold at the Hamlet Gallery on East Bay Street in Charleston; Red Piano Too, 870 Sea Island Parkway, St. Helena Island; and the Artisans Center, 318 Wichman St., Walterboro. His pieces also are sold in galleries around North Carolina and elsewhere.

Meadows says that while he didn't enter contests in search of awards, getting an invitation in 1997 to hang an ornament that he made on a White House Christmas tree was a high point.