Artist Says His Portraits Of Day Laborers Are Paintings — Not Statements

Feb 13, 2020
Originally published on February 14, 2020 5:14 am

Years ago, when artist John Sonsini began approaching Spanish-speaking day laborers in Los Angeles to ask if he could paint their portraits, he had some communication problems. "My Spanish was so poor," Sonsini admits.

First, he was introducing himself as an artista, a word that many Spanish speakers associate with a singer or dancer. But when he switched to pintor that didn't necessarily clear up the confusion — the men thought this professorial-looking, Italian-American with a salt-and-pepper beard was offering them a job painting houses.

What Sonsini was offering was a modeling job: He told the men he'd pay $30 dollars an hour, five hours a day, five days a week, for five weeks of work.

The results of their work — and Sonsini's — are now on view in Los Angeles in a show called Cowboy Stories & New Paintings. The exhibition features canvas after canvas of men in worn jeans, shirts, belts, boots and cowboy hats. They're gazing out of the paintings, directly at the viewers.

Sonsini looks for models who have "a dynamic physical presence." He says he's not looking for conventionally handsome men, but "I've never painted anyone that I didn't think was beautiful," he adds.

"I find that the presence of the sitter frees me up in a mysterious sort of way," Sonsini says. It loosens his brush strokes. He paints with confident, thick dashes of oil paint.

Sonsini says he tries to capture the presence of the men he paints in his portraits. Above, Francisco & Raul, 2009
John Sonsini

The idea to paint day laborers came from Gabriel Barajas, Sonsini's longtime partner. Barajas immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico and for years he was Sonsini's sole model. In their 24 years together, Barajas has introduced Sonsini to many models and also serves as a translator.

It's "super exciting," Barajas says. "It was my dream to do something in the arts."

Sonsini has painted Francisco Melgar, a model who came to the U.S. from Honduras, some 25 times. It's a physically demanding job, but one that makes him good money. Sonsini's not doing badly either — at the Vielmetter Los Angeles gallery his canvases sell for $10,000 to $75,000.

In the current climate, people sometimes see themes of immigration in Sonsini's work. Men leaving home — working hard for money to send back to their families, separation for sustenance. Sonsini denies it. His art, he says, is not political.

"I definitely am not trying to make statements," Sonsini says.

All he's making are paintings.

Francisco Melgar says he sees himself — his eyes, his face — in the portrait painted by John Sonsini.
Danny Hajek / NPR

Danny Hajek and Nina Gregory produced and edited this story for broadcast.

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A Los Angeles art show called "Cowboy Stories" has no horse or any cows. The canvases show Latino men in worn-out jeans, boots and cowboy hats staring at viewers. NPR's Susan Stamberg went to meet the artist and a few of his models.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: You think this looks like you?

FRANCISCO MELGAR: (Through interpreter) Yes.

STAMBERG: I don't.

MELGAR: (Through interpreter) Here's my eyes. Here's my face. I see that clearly.

STAMBERG: The Honduran model is Francisco Melgar. The interpreter, another model, is Gabriel Barajas from Mexico.

Your cheeks are bigger and softer. You look older there than you look in real life.

MELGAR: (Speaking Spanish).

GABRIEL BARAJAS: He said maybe (laughter).

STAMBERG: The LA Times says the artist, John Sonsini from New York, quote, "may be the greatest portrait painter in the country." But Sonsini says he's not making portraits. He's out to capture the presence of the person he's painting.

JOHN SONSINI: I find that the presence of the sitter frees me up in a mysterious sort of way.

STAMBERG: It loosens his brushstrokes. In confident, thick dashes of oil paint, the men come alive on his canvases. Years ago, Sonsini found inspiration in LA's Koreatown - day laborers hoping for work. Sonsini thought to paint a few of them and felt he had found his subject. Here's what he looked for in the man he approached.

SONSINI: Someone who's got a dynamic physical presence - it doesn't mean the person's necessarily attractive or not, although I think my attitude is I've never painted anyone that I didn't think was beautiful.

STAMBERG: They look uneasy, though, in the pictures, as if they are not used to posing for photographs, let alone paintings. Some of the workers were puzzled when Sonsini asked them to model for him - this professorial-looking Italian American with a salt-and-pepper beard wanting to paint them. Gabriel Barajas, who started as a model and became the artist's longtime partner, says a few of the men didn't quite understand.

BARAJAS: They always think that they are going to paint a house.

STAMBERG: Nope - different kinds of painting. And the money was good. John told them he would pay $30 an hour, five hours a day, five days a week - and they had to commit to five weeks of work. Beats putting up drywall or hauling trash. Barajas was Sonsini's only model for five years. He loved it.

BARAJAS: Very exciting, super exciting to me. It was my dream to do something into the arts.

STAMBERG: In their 24 years together, Barajas has introduced Sonsini to many models. Some have become friends, like Francisco Melgar. Sonsini has painted him some 25 times. He's the one with the round face in real life, slimmer on the canvas. Melgar considers posing a job, but it does take its toll.

BARAJAS: He was complaining that he feels sciatica pains.

STAMBERG: Feels what?

BARAJAS: Sciatica.

STAMBERG: In his legs - from standing in one position for so long. On the other hand, he's been immortalized, hung on the walls of collectors and museums. That doesn't seem so important to Melgar. I asked about how his friends react to his modeling.

BARAJAS: They feel very happy, but they most think that he is making good money (laughter).

(LAUGHTER)

STAMBERG: Painter John Sonsini's not doing badly either. At the Vielmetter gallery in LA, his large canvases cost $75,000, $10,000 for the smaller ones. In the current climate, people sometimes see themes of immigration, migration in his work; men leaving home - toiling for money to send back to their families, separation for sustenance. Sonsini denies it. His art, he says, is not political.

SONSINI: I definitely am not trying to make statements.

STAMBERG: How do you see it then? What are you doing?

SONSINI: Making paintings - making paintings.

STAMBERG: In Los Angeles, I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.