Thursday, November 7, 2019

Paint the Trail after Pulse

At heart Jeff Sonsken is an instigator. He creates art to ruffle feathers and make people think. He always loved painting and artwork growing up. It was something he always did on his own ever since he was a kid. He would get inspired and draw using colored pencils, he got into airbrushing. In college he was taking photography classes but he was doing airbrushing in his spare time.

After college he moved from Iowa to Orlando settling in Longwood. Painting the trail began sort of accidentally. During the 2008 housing bubble he was a carpenter working in million dollar homes building custom bookcases, offices, bars. Before the bubble bust everyone was living high on the hog. After the crash he started fixing kitchens. He painted a big sign on fence pickets and he was going to hang it on the trail where his parents lived to advertise his services. He decided against hanging it because he wanted time with his family. He felt disappointed since the sign was already painted but he kept driving. When he got home he picked up some pickets and battened them together base coated them and painted Einstein on them just so he had something to hang up. After Einstein he painted Yoda, and he put them up.

He thought people would be irritated but they weren’t. He was clearing out a spot for several panels and some guy on his bike stopped and asked if he was the guy that put the paintings up. He said, “Yea” expecting a possible argument. But the guy said, “I love it.” Soon a mom and daughter walked up and a small crowd gathered. The biker wanted him to paint Jack Lemon, the little girl asked him to paint Alfred Hitchcock. So when he left he had 5 more names for panels to be painted. He had a mission. He wasn’t getting paid, but he had something to do. When he finished the Jack Lemon piece the guy on the bike who requested it was riding by on the trail and he just rode past. He shouted out to him, “It’s Jack Lemon!” The jerk didn’t even stop. Every time he went out he would get more requests. After 6 months he started getting requests on the Paint the Trail Facebook page.

People wanted him to donate art to help cancer research or autism, he never said no. He found himself helping people who needed help. He realized he could have a positive impact even if it was just a drip in the bucket. He has done he would draw up someone’s family member and let them fill in the paint much as he did for Pulse families. That helped a lot of people. He has gone through a bit of a metamorphosis himself. He is going to do what he is doing for as long as he can. Though many of the trail paintings are pop cultural references there will once in a while be a memorial portrait in the mix. On the third fence he was painting, there was a woman who lost her 15 year old to leukemia and he painted the portrait. He went to meet the. Out on the trail one day, and they were already waiting. They were maybe 100 years down the trail and he walked down the trail towards them. There were two little girls and the dad, and the mom. Dad was holding flowers. So he flipped the painting around when he was about 60 feet from her and the mom just dropped. He has done many painting like that where that is what he was left with. He knows he is doing something good for them but it felt like he was inflicting pain on them. When he gets them to do the painting themselves, he is left with a more uplifting feeling about the experience. They might cry while doing the painting but when they get back to him they relate that it was an amazing experience.

 After Pulse he knew he needed to do something but he didn’t want to do something right away. Though it has been close to 2 years since the shooting it feet like yesterday while in other respects it felt like 10 years ago. The memories aren’t fresh but he remembered wrestling with it. He had a hard time with it. It happened like 18 miles from his home while he was sleeping. The rainbows don’t sink in anymore. Those were his neighbors. We all share the same community, they were brothers and sons. He spent a couple of weeks just pissed off. This happens all the time. You can’t even feel safe in your own town. It doesn’t matter where you go this could happen anywhere, a shopping mall a movie theater. We lost our mind as a civilization.

He did paint the skyline of Orlando in reference to Pulse. On Facebook he came across a video of people dancing. It didn’t make him feel happy. It tore him up. After that video he felt compelled to paint every face. He wanted people to see all their faces in one shot. As he completed each portrait he shared them on his Facebook page and families would share thoughts on his page. Once it was finished he took it to the Dr Phillips Center Memorial. Now any time there is another mass shooting people ask him to paint the number of people. No artist can keep up with those demands. He needs to think about his kids, and himself. At any moment you could be at the wrong place at the wrong time. Life was never like this before. It is crazy now. Middle school kids an high school kids are used to this new reality. Who knows what the answer is.

The trail is basically paint on wood so it can not last forever. He was doing some repairs and realized he can’t keep up with it. The more he creates the more maintenance there is. It is impossible to add up all the money he has invested. It is an expensive hobby. At some point people will have to swap out their fences when the wood rots. He creates a separate panel of fence and screws it right on to the back of an existing fence making it sturdier. When a hurricane blows through he has to think about taking sections down. Art might not last but it can help us anchor our thoughts and memories.

Prints are available for each sketch for $250 and many originals can be purchased for $400. White museum grade shadow box frames are $100 more. You can e-mail Thor at

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