Lennon Broomfield Lesston arrived at his spot at the corner of King and Radcliffe streets in downtown Charleston armed with a sketch board and a large art portfolio folder.
He eased into a chair he'd borrowed from a nearby restaurant, bemoaning that his journey there began with him sitting in a puddle while waiting for a bus from North Charleston.
It was a few minutes after sunset on the Friday after the Fourth of July, and the sidewalks of King Street were already clogged with bar-goers posing for selfies and families strolling home with melting ice cream cones. Weekend nights like this are the most lucrative for Broomfield Lesston, a self-taught artist who supports his family by selling portraits to tourists and locals.
Broomfield Lesston, 40, takes photos of customers on his iPhone and references the pictures as he draws with pencils, charcoal and pastels. Onlookers often linger and comment on his skill as he works on the sidewalk. Familiar passersby offer handshakes and hugs. He texts customers when their portraits are ready, signing the pictures as "Lennon Broomfield."
Until earlier this month, Broomfield Lesston and his wife were homeless. He turned to selling art on the street as his main source of income about a year ago after his applications to multiple janitorial, dish-washing and parking attendant jobs were rejected because of his criminal record.
Now he's one of several people who regularly collect money on the streets of Charleston's commercial district at a time when the city is attempting to crack down on "aggressive" panhandling. An ordinance that went into effect in the spring bans sitting or lying down on sidewalks along the busiest areas of King and Market streets.
This so far hasn't affected Broomfield Lesston, who said police officers are friendly and occasionally leave him tips. He sits on Radcliffe Street and lets customers come to him. His sign reads, "If you like my art, please donate. I love making smiles. Thank you!!"
Business owners and locals embrace him. A corner store clerk occasionally collects donations for his family. Customers have dropped off art supplies and other gifts: the iPhone he uses and an Xbox 360 for his 7-year-old son. A pedicab driver once gave him a bicycle.
Elizabeth Szczutkowski, a 57-year-old who lives on the streets, "gives hell" to anyone who tries to take his spot on the sidewalk. Before Broomfield Lesston arrived that Friday night, she complained repeatedly to no one in particular that a man playing saxophone on the corner was violating the city ordinance.
Later, she greeted Broomfield Lesston with a hug and recounted the story as he set up his supplies: "I told him, 'The guy comes every night and draws pictures right here.'"
She said God keeps telling her that Broomfield Lesston is "gonna go somewhere with his art."
Broomfield Lesston started making sketches 15 years ago in prison. He spent 11 years behind bars for his role, as a 19-year-old, in a robbery that ended with the victim's shooting death in North Charleston. He was convicted of common law robbery and misprision of a felony, or concealing a crime.
While incarcerated, he started sketching people such as his mother, Tupac Shakur, Nelson Mandela and just about any celebrity whose photos he could tear from magazines. Correctional officers recognized his talent and brought him paper and chalk. Fellow prisoners traded food from the commissary for his homemade holiday cards.
After prison, he refined his skills by watching YouTube videos and observing other public artists while continuing to draw casually. His hobby became his livelihood after his family fell on hard times a few years ago.
The first unraveling for Broomfield Lesston was a fire in 2016 that rendered his family's home in North Charleston unlivable. Around that time, he lost his job as a meat salesman — a gig he'd held for nearly eight years — when his employer relocated out of state. Then, sickle cell disease tightened its grip on his wife, Shakieba Lesston, and their teenage daughter. Weary from illness, his wife could no longer work at the downtown restaurant where she'd been pulling double shifts trying to save money for the family to move.
So Broomfield Lesston for seven months relied on art sales to pay the $45 to $60 for a night's stay at a motel for himself and his wife. Their four children, who are between the ages of 7 and 13, stayed with a relative because the couple thought the motels within their budget — the type that attracted bedbugs, prostitution and drug use — were no place for children.
For the moment, things are looking up. This month, Broomfield Lesston and his wife moved in with his sister at her two-bedroom duplex in North Charleston, where they help pay for utilities.
Their children visit, but there's not enough room there for them to live. And it's only temporary. If his living situation were to fall through, Broomfield Lesston said he'd be back to scraping together cash for a motel.
'He helped me'
As he settled in for a night of drawing, his mind was still with his wife and children. He had worked "two-and-a-half days straight" before the Fourth of July and raked in around $300 so his family could go out to eat and set off firecrackers. Now that cash was mostly gone and he needed money to continue feeding his family and pay the bills.
Broomfield Lesston's latest portrait lay on the sidewalk under a stone. The detailed charcoal picture showed two friends grinning with their faces pressed together.
"Man, that’s (expletive) awesome," a passerby said while looking down at the drawing.
Another man stopped to tell Broomfield Lesston that he bought one of his drawings several years ago, and it now hangs in his home.
"It’s the only piece of art I have," the man said. Broomfield Lesston flashed a wide grin.
Jackie Gearhart, a 22-year-old who lives downtown, said hello to Broomfield Lesston as she and two friends headed to a club. She had recently stopped to get his advice about a fight with a friend. People like Gearhart are why he keeps a bucket handy to function as an extra seat for visitors.
"He helped me through a really rough night one night," she said.
Later, a man who has purchased Broomfield Lesston's art in the past leaned in to get a close look as he sketched a portrait of Gearhart and one of her friends. He tipped $20 and offered to come back with his stethoscope to give Broomfield Lesston a checkup.
By 11:30 p.m., the artist had earned $25, just enough for a cab ride home. Even after 12-hour "shifts" and drawing for so long that his vision blurs, Broomfield Lesston doesn't always earn enough money to cover transportation and daily expenses.
"A lot of times, I don’t make it, and I gotta figure it out," he said.
On those nights, his wife stays with a relative and he sleeps downtown in his broken-down 1991 Volvo, in the back of an unlocked U-Haul truck or in a park. Then he wakes up, hopes for a good day and resumes drawing.