Now he's got 15-foot ceilings and tall windows and great ventilation. In his square studio, he creates sweeping geologic change.
The craters of Arizona and the caves of Kentucky inspire Leone's work, with a pinch of Kuwaiti sand and a dash of Mexican volcanic ash.
In his "Craters" series, he digs into layers of paperboard with saws, sanders and rasps, sometimes adding graphite, creating circles and ovals. His "Carbon and Crust" works are more elaborate. On a background of wood, he pours thick latex paint, the kind you use to paint lines in a parking lot, and piles the layers high until the art becomes more of a sculpture than a painting. Sometimes he mixes materials into the paint, like ash found on his travels or sand a friend sent him from Kuwait.
In all of Leone's art, the feel is geologic and rocky, like a moon crater. It's a mix between otherworldly and down-to-earth.
Two of his works are now on display in Palo Alto, in a group show at New Coast Studios called "Transformation," which Leone thinks is perfect.
"My work is about changing ideas, transforming materials from simple, almost common materials like paint and graphite into something more than what the materials are doing," he said in a phone interview from Ohio. "Like geological processes transform one stratum into something different over millions of years." He laughed. "I don't have as much time."
Leone is exhibiting his art in Palo Alto after responding to a call for works from New Coast Studios (formerly Fibre Arts Design). He sent two pieces from his "Craters" series, both rich with texture and deep grays in the paper.
While Leone is an assistant professor of art at Northern Kentucky University, just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati, he's definitely part geologist as well.
After working as a graphic designer in New York after college, Leone needed a break from the business. He found it in construction, building up and tearing down buildings, working with his hands in a world of power tools and dust. He also traveled widely, collecting rocks and studying geology while going to Egypt, South America and other places. Then, he went back to school to earn a master of fine arts degree in drawing and painting from Arizona State University.
"That's where I put all this together: map-making and traveling and art," he said. "My work started to look more like satellite imagery and lava flow and rock formation. Now I could probably teach a Geology 101 beginning freshman class. Maybe."
Leone was hesitant at first about his rock-star style. But the exhibitions and the grants kept coming. Now he enjoys his unusual path.
"If you look at the history of art, less so in modernism, generally art was about something connected to previous art movements. Nowadays people explore more avenues. But still geology is not something that is readily explored in the fine arts," he said.
His interest in tools from his construction days carries over into his studio, where on any given day he might use a circular saw, an orbit sander or a rotary tool with a wood rasp on it. "You want to be careful with those, but they eat through the paper beautifully," he said. Bits of paper fly everywhere, and he's careful to wear a respirator and cover his other art with plastic curtains while working. Hair dryers and oscillating fans are useful for drying latex paint while he manipulates it like Play-Doh.
At New Coast Studios, his two "Craters" works are prominently displayed in the newly painted gallery. They're surrounded by a myriad of art styles created by 20 other artists, including kaleidoscopic lightjet prints on metallic paper by Andrea Dirheimer, driftwood horses by Linda Raffel and stitched textiles by Winifred Dell'Ario.
"These works are not literal intepretations of craters. I didn't want it to look exactly like something," Leone said. "I wanted to hike, be out in nature and not be encumbered by lots of sketching: just bringing the thinking and feeling back to the studio."
What: "Transformation," a curated group show at New Coast Studios, looking at themes of change, rebirth, growth and death through works by 21 artists
Where: 935 Industrial Ave., Palo Alto
When: Through March 17. The show is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Info: Go to newcoaststudios.com or call 650-485-2121.