Luis de León | Photo by Marvin del Cid
Luis de León | Photo by Marvin del Cid

Luis de León is used to performing in an ensemble. He is one of the six members of Louisville band Appalatin, which blends Latin and American folk traditions for an upbeat sound that encourages foot-tapping, dancing and general merriment. He plays everything from harmonica and maracas to the güiro.

On Friday night, however, de León is stepping into his own spotlight as he presents his first solo art show of more than 40 drawings at Gallery K. Titled “Lines of Refuge,” the exhibit is a mix of serious and silly pieces that stem from his arduous journey from Guatemala to the United States.

"Futuro" by Luis de León
“Futuro” by Luis de León

When he was forced to flee his homeland in 2009, de León found refuge in filling his sketchbooks with art that reflected his emotions. He worked as a journalist for more than 15 years in Guatemala, often investigating the seedy underworld of drug trafficking, government corruption and contraband. After receiving numerous death threats, he and his family moved to Louisville, his wife’s hometown.

Once safe and somewhat adjusted, de León began to refine his art, and this is when he joined Appalatin and also dabbled in photography. His drawings once again brought him solace and a way to express himself.

“The theme of the exhibit is ‘Lines of Refuge/Líneas del Refugio’ because each one of us looks for their comfort zone, a place of refuge. Indirectly, the U.S. has offered me a refuge,” de León tells Insider. “I chose the name after discovering a safe place in which I don’t have to worry about languages … the drawings speak for themselves. I realized we all need to find some sort of refuge, and drawing feels safe to me.”

One major adjustment for de León after he moved to Louisville was learning English.

“I can express my affection, rage, hate and fear without using a spoken language,” he says. “I am surrounded by a spoken language that is not my first language, and when I draw, I can retreat into a place where words do not carry that weight.”

de León admits he is both excited and nervous for his first solo art show, which is a completely different experience than playing on a stage as part of a group.

“I am used to being in public since I play with several bands, but this is different,” he explains. “This show is about my own work, and even though I will be surrounded by friends and family, sometimes it is hard to have faith in oneself, and it is a little strange to know I will be surrounded by pieces of me up on the walls.”

"Summer" by Luis de León
“Summer” by Luis de León

The artist also says he hopes to learn from the experience, and he’s somewhat apprehensive of how people will react to his work. “I am very curious to find out whether people will like my work or not, what draws them in, or what doesn’t work,” he says. “I also feel excited, because it is a privilege to be able to draw whatever I want. This is the first time I will do something like this without feeling censored by anyone. It is hard to just show oneself to the public and share opinions, but those things are much easier to do through art.”

de León believes there are many similarities between art and music, which is why he was drawn to both forms of expression. He says they’re similar in terms of time and space.

"Los de Abajo" by Luis de León
“Los de Abajo” by Luis de León

“I mean, you can lose yourself inside a work of art and in music. Time stops,” he says. “Both music and art are freeing … they are things that appeal to all, and each person can find something meaningful that fits within their own culture and worldview.”

Above all, de León wants the people who come out to see his exhibit to be honest. The 40 drawings are meant to elicit laughter, sadness, fear and even anger.

“I suspect each viewer will have some sort of reaction to what they are seeing, and any reaction is fine,” he adds. “I strive for honesty.”

de León’s “Lines of Refuge” runs Sept. 2-22 at Gallery K, 976 Barret Ave. An opening reception will be held tonight, Sept. 2, from 5-9 p.m. He says there also will be a closing reception held Thursday, Sept. 22, from 5-9 p.m. as well. Appalatin plays Saturday, Sept. 3, at WorldFest‘s Main Stage at 7:15 p.m.

Sara Havens is the Culture Editor at Insider Louisville. She's known around town as the Bar Belle and updates her blog ( daily. She's a former editor of LEO Weekly and has written for Playboy and The Alcohol Professor. Havens is the author of two books: "The Bar Belle" and "The Bar Belle Vol. 2."


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