John Sonsini Says His Portraits Of Day Laborers Are Paintings — Not Statements Years ago, John Sonsini began approaching men in Los Angeles who were looking for work — and offering them modeling jobs. The results are on view in a show called Cowboy Stories & New Paintings.
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Artist Says His Portraits Of Day Laborers Are Paintings — Not Statements

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

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

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

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.

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