OffBeat’s April cover artist, local painter Dona Simons, has painted Sonny Landreth more than 30 times.
Her Lakeview house is full of him: Sonny standing on a bed of sea coral surrounded by floating guitars; Sonny jamming with a friend on a festival stage; Sonny playing a naked woman in front of Gallier Hall. She also has a series of paintings of just his hands.
“Why would you need to do that many portraits of one person?” Simons asks rhetorically. “Well, you wouldn’t. [laughs] But I don’t see them as portraits. To me, getting a likeness is just the beginning. It’s two things at once, an ephemeral transitory moment, like a photograph, filtered through me, but a document of my experience of his performance rather than a document of physical reality. It’s one moment, but years condensed into that moment, if that makes any sense at all.”
Simons realizes her realistic painting style can lead viewers to misunderstand her work. Hers is not the oil paint version of music photography, but a subconscious interpretation of Landreth’s music as it is being performed. She doesn’t do drawings or studies. She just starts painting.
“I’m not interested in the Sonny who sits at his breakfast table eating Cheerios,” Simons says. “It’s not personal. And this is the reason I don’t make paintings of my husband, because in order to paint I need detachment. My conscious mind doesn’t know what I’m doing. I can take one of my own paintings and analyze it like I would analyze a painting by someone else.”
Sonny Landreth is not the only musician Simons has put on canvas. But overall she favors songwriters and guitarists who perform their own music.
“To me, the songwriting is key,” she says. “With Sonny’s level of skill, if he didn’t write his own songs, he wouldn’t be able to express his ability. Songwriting and painting is the same in that you’re creating your own reality rather than interpreting someone else’s.”
Simons first saw Landreth perform at Jazz Fest is 2002. She’d gone on a lark by herself and ended up in the Blues Tent. She remembers being utterly beside herself, pulling on the sleeve of the stranger sitting next to her (“he thought I was nuts, of course”) because she couldn’t believe what she was hearing.
“From seeing Sonny that first time, I’ve had this inspiration that’s lasted for years,” she says. “He’s been my influence, more than anyone else.”
Sonny Landreth was stunned when he first saw Simons’ paintings of him.
“They’re so detailed, I almost couldn’t look,” he says. “When your music touches other artists, to have it show up in other mediums, that’s an honor. There’s no end to creativity; there’s always a give and take.”