J. Leo Fairbanks was born in Payson, Utah in 1878. The son of early Utah artist, John B. Fairbanks, and the older brother of noted sculptor, Avard Fairbanks, J. Leo was an artist and educator. Fairbanks became director of art and architecture for the Salt Lake City School District. In 1923 he was recruited to be chair of the department of art and architecture at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon. Although Fairbanks's major focus was art education, he was also a painter and sculptor. In 1916, he completed a sculptural frieze for the temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Hawaii.
Fairbanks first studied under his father and then went to Paris for further study from 1903 to 1905, first at the Académie Julian where he won first prize in painting and a second prize in sculpture. He later studied at the Académie Colarossi and the Grande Chaumière.