Atlanta-based artist Daniel Sims donated a wood-burned portrait of the late Horace “Smiley” Leonard, who was killed in a tragic train accident last September, to the Comer Museum and Arts Center.
The portrait was unveiled at a reception Thursday night with more than 30 people in attendance, including much of Smiley’s family.
“This is a very special event in Sylacauga to remember Smiley Leonard,” museum director Donna Rentfrow said. “Most folks in town were introduced to him or just bumped into him, and we got to known him fairly well. I still watch for him; I know we all do. We have a beautiful, beautiful portrait of Smiley here. Artist Daniel Sims graciously did this, and he has donated this to the museum to hang here, so you can come in and visit Smiley any time you want to.”
When Rentfrow uncovered the portrait, family members clapped and gave a collective “aww.” Some were even moved to tears at the striking memorial of their relative.
“We didn’t know the people of Sylacauga thought that much of our brother,” said Smiley’s sister, Betty Tuck. “I just love the picture. It makes your heart feel good, but there’s still a sadness. Sometimes on my way to work, I still look for him, and you have to come back and remember what happened. But this is really nice. It makes you feel good to know that people still love people. Our family really appreciates this.”
Sims, a Sylacauga native, said he was approached by a friend about making a memorial to Smiley. Sims agreed and spent a week creating the artwork using a pen that heats up to 300 degrees to slowly burn each detail into the wood.
He said he hopes the portrait, based on an old family photograph, symbolizes “just how important Smiley was to all of us and the impact he had. He wasn’t rich or famous, but he had such a huge impact from just saying ‘hey’ to everybody and being kind.”
Smiley, 67, was killed Sept. 6, 2013, while attempting to pass between two train cars of a Norfolk Southern train at the Broadway Avenue crossing. The train was stopped, but began to move forward as he was still in between, and Smiley was struck.
The news of his passing was a shock to the family, as well as the many community members who had seen him daily for years.
Smiley was a bit of a celebrity in Sylacauga, known for roaming the city streets, asking passersby for a dollar or a cigarette and popping into downtown businesses.
His brother, James Leonard, said their family often talks about how they miss Smiley. He said it helps to know the community hasn’t forgotten him either.
“Even though he’s gone, he’s still here,” Leonard said. “I know he gave a lot of people problems, but that was just his way. He really was a good guy though, and he would give you the shirt off his back. He was unique in his own way. A lot of people won’t get this kind of publicity when they die. It means a lot that everybody wants to remember him.”
Contact Emily McLain at firstname.lastname@example.org.