Interview With Outsider Artist Lamar Sorrento

The best guitarist in Memphis put down his instrument almost 20 years ago and has become one of the most collected rock painters.

By , Contributor

Lamar Sorrento is the Keith Richards of outsider art. Tall, angular, darkly handsome with a wicked air of mystery about him, he looks more like a swaggering guitar player from some renegade '60s band than a world-class artist.

But that's because he is. Besides making bold, primitive, strangely disturbing paintings of rock icons by night, fueled by a lethal combination of a Starbucks decaf latte and a single beer, he spends his "off hours" penning and playing music inspired by the great holy trinity of the Beatles, Byrds, and Dylan, and the gyspy jazz of Django Reinhardt—the subject of his very first painting.

django.jpgThe self-effacing and self-taught Sorrento, whom many insist is the best guitarist in Memphis, put down his guitar one day in 1992 and picked up a paintbrush after watching a former girlfriend turn out paintings with alacrity. "I just watched her and figured that I could do it, too."

And he did. Since that time he figures he has done over 30,000 paintings, some of which bedeck over 30 album covers and emblazon the covers of books, hang in museums, in most of the House of Blues, and decorate the tasteful walls of celebrities like Neil Young, Drew Barrymore, Billy Gibbons, Jimmy Page, Morgan Freeman, Susan Sarandon, Lucinda Williams, Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne, and, well, of course, Keith Richards.

He's been known to take commissions to paint the occasional dog and cat, but perhaps his strangest was the day the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland asked him to paint a 12-foot, 250-pound guitar to be auctioned for charity. That is if you don't count the day Big Star's Alex Chilton came over to Sorrento's house and asked him to paint a rather Southern gothic rendering of the reclusive musician and his girlfriend. After three sittings the painting was done to the late artist's great delight. But most of Sorrento's work is commissioned through his rather comic book website, which features bold pictures of iconic stars like The Who, Dylan, Johnny Cash, many permutations of the Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and many other staples on classic rock radio.

But that's not all. There are pithy southernisms, and hilarious quasi-political indictments like: "OK folks: Do you know what is wrong with America? Ok, let me tell you. This sums it all up, for me. Herb Alpert is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Link Wray is not. Nuff said!"

Sorrento, who lives in Memphis, Tennessee with his wife, Vicki, and four dogs is no ordinary painter. With an IQ that goes through the roof, a role in Delta, a New York Time's Critic's Choice film in 1996, and a sixth album titled Honky Tonk Trash Man due out next month (available on ReverbNation and CDBaby), it seems there isn't anything he can't do. But you would never hear it from him. "If you give me just a single hour, I can teach you to paint just like me.” Hardly.

You call yourself “World Famous Artist and Musician” on your website?

There is only so much room for a banner title and I thought that would make people at least take a look.

Do you often have to defend that claim?

I have not had any challengers!

You say that you’re self-taught. How did you teach yourself? And why did you want to learn?

I had never made any kind of art. Ever. One day I just decided that I wanted a painting of Django Reinhardt because I am crazy about him. So I borrowed some paint and a canvas and had a go at it. I found it extremely hard but it felt oddly familiar to me..

Why didn’t you take proper lessons?

It never occurred to me.

How did you know that you were doing it right?

When I saw the first one I did looking back at me. It was talking to me. Then, when someone bought the first one.

How do you know when you’ve really captured someone?

That is just something I feel but can’t explain. I can’t make a painting look just like someone so I have to make it be them anyway.

Best compliment that you’ve ever gotten?

Your hair is magnificent.

What do you bring to your pieces that other artists don’t?

I don’t bring anything. It’s already there.

You seem to paint a preponderance of musicians. Why is that?

Musicians are interesting. Just ask any of them.

Do you meet any of your subjects?

Yeah, lots of times. It makes me uneasy.

Do you ever paint from real life?

What? As opposed to fantasy? My whole career is a fantasy.

Being a musician yourself, does that inform your work?

Yes.

Is there any similarity to your two pursuits? Overlap? Do you play guitar while you paint? Listen to music?

In the early days I listened to Beatles at enormous volumes. Now I listen to Buck Owens or Dylan, but very low volumes.

How is painting like making an album?

It’s not. It’s more like making a shirt.

dylanblue.jpgYou’ve said you paint artists you admire, what about ones that you don’t?

I give anybody a shot. It’s a challenge if I don’t like the subject but art for me is a job, not some cosmic event.

Favorite subject to paint?

Dylan.

What’s your biggest challenge been?

I painted the bottom of a Goddamn swimming pool in one day.

Best perk of your job?

Being able to drink beer while I work.

Hardest body part to paint?

The nose.

What subject you've painted has given you the most trouble?

No question, BB King.

What you’re known for?

Always having satisfied customers.

Are there some people/subjects you won’t paint? Why?

I hate painting bald men. I find it too hard. I like hair.

Do you have any rituals before you paint?

Oh God yes. I am practically Rainman-ish.

Where do you get your inspiration?

It comes in like a radio station. It has nothing to do with visual stimulation.

What if it doesn’t come?

I go play guitar and have some beer.

Are there days that you don’t paint?

Yes, you can’t force it or it will not look right.

What about the stuff you write on your painting. How do you choose that?

I found that words needed painting as much as the image. I used to never do that, but some of the people I painted were very obscure and the people didn’t know who they were jut by looking at them, so I started writing their names on the front to remove any doubts as to who I was.

People refer to your stuff as outsider art. Is that accurate? What do you call it?

I call it: “this is as good as I can paint.”

I understand you were once a short order cook and then worked in computer tech support; how does that help you in your art?

It gave me something to dread having to go back to.

Do you still cook? Best thing you make?

A bowl of cereal.

Is there a correlation between painting and cooking?

Paintings seldom smoke up the house.

A rule you live by.

Semper Esurio.

Stay hungry?

Yes, or yearning. Aspiring. I made it up. I took Latin for two years. I could translate Caesar if I had to.

You’ve said: My work is affordable for every common man or woman. Why is that important to you?

A painting should not cost more than an air conditioner.

Most challenging commission?

They all are, to me

What’s the strangest request you’ve ever gotten?

One time a record producer from Germany asked for a painting of Oprah interviewing Madonna in front of a sharecropper shack in the Delta. I painted it and he liked it.

A subject you’re often mistaken to be an expert on.

Women.

A subject you actually are.

I’m good at Scrabble.

Your greatest strength as a painter?

I paint fast.

As a person?

I don’t bother people.

Your greatest strength?

My giant head size.

Something you’d change about yourself?

I’d make my head smaller.

All you need is?

Something to be enthusiastic about.

What do you say to yourself when thing get difficult?

I say stuff like, “Why didn’t I finish college?"

What are you like when you’re drunk?

I’m more charming.

Is it important to be understood?

Yes, but it’s not important to be understood by everyone. But it helps a lot of someone you respect tells you that they understand what you are doing. That way you don’t feel like you’re standing completely alone in left field.

On your website, you say you give super fast service. How long does it take you to paint someone?

How soon do you want it...?

Tell me about meeting Howard Finster. You said on your website that you thought he was inspirational. How? Did he give you any advice?

No, he was just a regular guy. Artists don’t want advice anyway.

What’s on your to-do list?

To make another album and go on the Beatle tour in Liverpool.

How different is Lamar Sorrento the artist from Lamar Sorrento the man?

One’s cooler than the other.

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Jaan Uhelszki was one of the founding editors at Detroit’s legendary Creem magazine. Since that time, her work has appeared in USA Today, Uncut, Rolling Stone, Spin, NME, Relix, and Guitar World. She is the only journalist to have ever performed in full makeup with Kiss. Luckily she only had to put…

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