Leon JonesHe met Michael Jackson face to face, and painted the King of Pop at his Neverland Ranch.

Leon Jones, a self-taught artist from Buena Park, has fond memories of Jackson. The pop singer died June 25 at age 50, and his memorial service this week was watched on TV by 31 million people in the U.S. alone.

“Michael was just great,” said Jones, 52. “He was just like a little kid. He was a down-to-earth person.”

During the summer of 2003, Jones painted two murals and a go-cart for Jackson’s sprawling Santa Barbara County residence. He spent several months painting at the ramblin’ ranch.

It all began like this: In 2003, Jones was doing portraits outside Cafe Tu Tu Tango at Universal City Walk. He specializes in celebrities — Dr. Dre, Tupac Shakur, Ice Cube, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Aubrey Hepburn, Lucille Ball.

One day, a gentleman in his 30s representing Jackson asked if Jones could do some work for “his boss.” The stranger left him with $500 cash to do the commission.

Jones was skeptical. But a couple of days later, the artist and his nephew met the gentleman at a gas station in Santa Barbara. They followed the man up through Los Olivos, and finally to the fantastical, secluded Neverland Ranch.

“It was unreal, like you were on a different planet,” Jones said. “Neverland is designed to make you feel like you don’t have any responsibilities.”

Jones observed that Neverland was equipped with rides, a functional train, a large movie theater and a tree house.

“He goes up in this tree and writes poetry,” Jones recalled. “In the day, he’d be sitting over in the tree, and he’d be just Michael.”

Jones painted two, 15-feet-high murals to decorate Jackson’s train depot. He did a portrait of Jackson in knight’s armor donning angel wings, as well as a large mural of Jackson pointing toward the heavens, surrounded by winged children.

“When they saw them, Michael and three or four kids, and his kids, they all started applauding me,” Jones said. “Later on, one of the children said, ‘That’s what Michael did when he felt like you had done a great job.’ I’ve never experienced something like that.”

Jones also said that upon seeing his work, the King of Pop grabbed his hand and skipped a block’s length with him.

“It was like we were little kids,” he explained. “It was just fantastic. When we were there, they treated us like kings and queens.”

Jones declined to comment on whether he saw anything strange or unusual take place at Neverland Ranch.

“I’m not going to go into that. It would be wrong of me to even make a comment like that, to bad-mouth Michael Jackson.”

He did note the absence of parents, even with lots of kids around.

The father of five says he grew up listening to Jackson’s music, all the way back to the Jackson 5 days.

“Back in school, we wanted to be like the Jackson 5. We wanted to be like Michael.”

Thus, he was devastated when he heard the news late last month that Jackson died at his home from a sudden cardiac arrest. Authorities are still investigating whether other factors were involved.

“I felt so bad,” Jones said. “It was like a piece that was taken out of me. Here’s a person that I grew up idolizing all the time. He was a part of me, a part of something inside of me. Michael was my brother.”

Nowadays, Jones works from home and is represented by seven galleries. He also sells his work at the Orange County Marketplace on weekends. He has his own Web site, theartman.com, where he also sells and displays work, and continues to do celebrity portraits.

“I don’t know anybody on the planet who has the talent that I have,” he said. “It comes from God. I have a billion dollars in talent. I’m rich already.”

Last week, Jones watched the memorial service for Jackson on television, but had to turn the set off at certain, emotionally charged moments.

“It hurts. It hurts bad. He has touched me. He was the best in the world, and he had to leave.

“I told my son, ‘That’s why I have to cherish every moment with you.’ We’re only here for a little while.”

(c) 2009, The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.). Source: McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.