Program uncovers Helena artistic prodigy

Project SEARCH student Josh Fleagle, left, and Shannon Harris Hopkins work on their latest works of art on Sept. 26 at Helena's Ice and Coal Gallery. (Reporter Photo/Jon Goering)

Project SEARCH student Josh Fleagle, left, and Shannon Harris Hopkins work on their latest works of art on Sept. 26 at Helena’s Ice and Coal Gallery. (Reporter Photo/Jon Goering)

By NEAL WAGNER / Managing Editor

HELENA – When local watercolor artist Shannon Harris Hopkins showed some of her colleagues in the architectural drawing field Josh Fleagle’s drawings of several Alabama landmarks, they had a hard time believing Fleagle drew them freehand.

“I’ve showed them to some of my architect friends, and they can’t believe Josh freehands this stuff,” Hopkins said.

“Well, they should believe it, because here it is,” Fleagle said with a laugh as he pointed to a table of drawings in Helena’s Ice and Coal Gallery on Sept. 26.

For Fleagle, a Helena resident and a member of the Alabaster-based Project SEARCH program, unveiling his artwork at the Ice and Coal Gallery signified the culmination of a multi-week process with a surprise beginning. Project SEARCH works with special-needs students in Shelby County and Alabaster schools to offer the students internships at area businesses, and also works to find the students jobs after they graduate.

Fleagle and his classmates were helping artist Thomas Andrew create and sell angel artwork at Shelby Baptist Medical Center in late August when Fleagle flagged down Project SEARCH Job Coach Kim Kielbasa.

“Josh just told me ‘I like to draw too,’” Kielbasa said, noting she was “amazed” when she saw a notebook of Fleagle’s drawings. “He can literally look at a picture or go to a location, pick the angle he wants to draw it from and then draw it.”

Over the past few weeks, Fleagle has drawn Auburn University’s Samford Hall, Denny Chimes at the University of Alabama and a local grist mill. In each drawing, Fleagle painstakingly included every detail of the structures – down to individual bricks and the position of blinds in building windows.

    Project SEARCH student Josh Fleagle, left, and Shannon Harris Hopkins work on their latest works of art on Sept. 26 at Helena's Ice and Coal Gallery. (Reporter Photo/Jon Goering)

Josh Fleagle’s most recent drawings, including sketches of Samford Hall and Denny Chimes. (Reporter Photo/Jon Goering)

After Fleagle completed the three recent drawings, he turned them over to Hopkins, who used watercolors to finish the works of art.

Fleagle’s father, Bill, accompanied his son to the Art and Coal Gallery on Sept. 26 for a photo shoot designed to help the 20-year-old artist build his portfolio.

“We’ve known he had artistic talent for a while. We would always say ‘Josh, you’ve got this great ability and you need to use it,’” Bill Fleagle said. “Hearing it from someone outside of mom and dad has challenged him to pursue this great opportunity.”

Kielbasa said Josh Fleagle’s situation is different from other Project SEARCH students she has worked with in the past.

“This is uncharted territory. To sit and watch him do this now, it’s overwhelming,” Kielbasa said. “We will see where it goes from here.”

Hopkins is a product developer and artist and is using her past 15 years experience in the art field to create prints from the originals to sell. In addition to the watercoloring the pen and inks Josh creates, Shannon is developing a business module that will allow Josh to earn a living as an artist, as well as make public appearances for art signings.

“Josh is a charming and outgoing young man, that loves new experiences, and I want to help provide those outlets as they build confidence and provide a great social outlet”

Josh and Shannon will have their first public appearance signing prints of Denny Chimes and Samford Hall at Ice and Coal gallery on Friday Oct. 3, from 5-7 p.m., and have several more throughout Birmingham in the next few months.

To see the complete line of prints for sale in the shop visit Etsy.com/shop/angelsofart.