Last year, Eric Leonard, a prosecutor in the Ramsey County Attorney's Office, died of a rare form of lung cancer. He was 55. His death left a huge hole in the office — not just because he was a kind man, but because he was so good at his job.
Leonard's specialty was prosecuting child sex abusers. That meant preparing young children — many of them under 10 — to give testimony in a courtroom where the accused abuser would most likely be present.
"Kids felt safe with him," said Jill Gerber, assistant director of the office's criminal division. "And they felt that they could talk to him. And really, adults and children alike, when they were speaking with Eric, they were like the only person in the room."
Leonard interviewed young victims and witnesses in what's called the "children's room." It's not much bigger than a closet.
"That room used to look like this," Gerber said, gesturing around at the office she was sitting in. "Bare walls, institutional furniture — whenever we'd bring children in to interview or to talk, we were always coming in with books in our arms and toys and stuffed animals."
Gerber and her colleagues decided that, in Eric Leonard's memory, they would try to brighten up the room a bit. They contacted artist Ara Elizabeth, who recently published a children's book called "Rise and Shine." She is also the artist behind a popular yard sign that features a little girl and the words "Justice, Love, Humanity, Compassion, Unite."
"Initially, they said, 'Can you just do a painting for one of the walls in memory of Eric?' And I said, 'Sure,'" Elizabeth recalled. "But I wasn't sure what the painting would be, and the room was really stark and pretty drab and beige walls."
The project had some restrictions. Because the attorney's office rents the office space, Elizabeth couldn't paint anything directly on the walls. And because the department is taxpayer-funded, the attorney's office said it couldn't pay her for her work — it could only reimburse her for her art supplies.
Elizabeth has a background in childhood education and working with at-risk populations. After hearing about Eric Leonard's work, she knew she wanted the project.
"I immediately was hit with all these ideas, and I was like, 'OK, it can't just be one painting it needs — the whole room has to transform,'" she said.
Elizabeth painted several different paintings that now hang on the walls, but she also added mirrors and window frames, paper birds and fake plants. She found a toy stove and a cabinet and refurbished them with bright, cheery colors and floral designs. Wet Paint donated art supplies and Red Balloon Bookshop donated picture books and graphic novels. Elizabeth also consulted with her three children, ages 10, 8 and 5 — they helped her find fidget spinners and squishy toys for the kids to use when they're feeling stressed.
Gerber said it's a completely different room.
"Now we can just walk into this whimsical, cottage-like, safe, fun room, and the kids can play and be relaxed while they talk about things that happened to them," she said. "So whatever it takes to make them feel more comfortable."
Most of all, she said, it's a fitting tribute to her beloved colleague.
"There isn't anything that's going to bring him back, but if he were to see it he would love it," she said. "And I get a sense and a feeling that he is there."
And in at least one sense, Eric Leonard is there. In the children's room there's a painting of a man with blond hair and rosy cheeks. He's holding out his hand, and above it floats a heart. Ara Elizabeth said it's Eric, keeping watch over the children.