Art is an honest day’s work for Lamar Sorrento. The 65-year-old folk artist hasn’t worked a “normal” job since 1991, but he says that painting for a living isn’t much different.
“For most of my life I worked a lot of day jobs, made a lot of albums and stuff working part time as a musician,” he says. “When I came back to Memphis 25 years ago, I decided to be an artist. So I started at the point where every good artist does: broke.”
Sorrento’s work — which can be seen across the South in the form of murals and commission pieces — showcases a penchant for bright, acrylic caricatures of blues legends, rock musicians and barbecue joints from the past and present. “I can’t even draw with a pencil,” he jokes. “I just kind of shape it with a brush. It took me a long time at first because I didn’t know what I was doing.”
With no formal training, Sorrento picked up a brush 25 years ago and decided to paint a few of his favorite musicians on a whim. At the beginning, painting was a challenge. “You ever try to paint? It’s hard, he says. “I originally got started because I just wanted a few things to hang up in my house.”
Sorrento learned to paint in private and didn’t think much of his own work at first. However, his bright, colorful acrylic portraits of forgotten musicians like Django, Memphis Minnie, Son House and more soon drew attention. “It took me a lot of time at first because I didn’t know what I was doing,” he says. “The paintings just started to pile up in the back of my house.”
A New Orleans-based friend and gallery owner noticed Sorrento’s large stack of unseen paintings. He shipped a set to New Orleans and, to his surprise, they all sold. Soon after, commission work began to pile on. “It just sort of started off small and spread out eventually,” he says. “That’s just how things happen, you know?”
A laid-back Southern soul, Sorrento embodies the stereotype of the slow-talking drifter with his ever-present sunglasses and cowboy hat. He still records and performs his own self-designated genre of music, “hardcore Delta space jam blues.” “I’m just a part-time musician,” he says. “Full-time around here would be on Beale Street every night at the casinos.”