[Update, July 5, 2012: I received word earlier today that Sonny Sivack had passed away following a three-week stint in the ICU at St. Vincent’s Hospital. My condolences to his friends and family, and my thanks to him for the handful of conversations I got to have with him. He was a good guy. RIP]
Objectively-speaking, there is nothing about the art of Sonny Sivack (not to be confused with SAVAK) that gives any indication of his amateur status, other than his preference for recycled paper and other found materials. It defies belief to appreciate that he hasn’t even been doing this for six months yet. Now, his presence at places like First Wednesday ArtWalk, First Friday in Five Points and the Riverside Arts Market promises to take his creativity to new levels.
All this marks a dramatic shift in Sivack’s personal fortunes, while opening the door for positive changes to a life that has been, for lack of a better word, difficult. A Duval native, the 51 year-old Sivack is a regular fixture in Riverside, as is his Korean-born wife of 26 years, whom he describes as “more American than Korean”; some call her “the Ghost Lady”, but the hipsters who predominate in the neighborhood call her “Yoko No-No”. It is unclear how that moniker strikes her, or if she’s even aware of it, but he says she’s been “very supportive” of his art career, which began completely by accident.
Sivack’s life began falling apart many years ago, after sustaining serious head injuries during a training accident while serving in the US Army. “I hear ringing and stuff all the time,” he says. “I have to take medicine and stuff to calm it down and all.” The resulting permanent disability, along with other health problems, makes it difficult to find or keep a regular job; he can’t walk or stand very long, so whenever you see him, he’s probably sitting down.
Husband and wife are both long-time members of the city’s homeless population, which currently numbers nearly 5,000, with more joining them every day. It turns out that this part of his story—the “back-story” to this art-related “angle”—has been documented before, by the estimable Florida Times-Union back in October 2005. “They use the surrounding brick walls to dry their clothes and socks. A grocery cart sits off to the side, serving as the chest of drawers that holds bags of clothes, bottles, newspapers and styrofoam cups. Sometimes they eat. Sometimes they don’t.” That story was about the Hope Team, an outreach project for the Sulzbacher Center that delivers bagged lunches and other essentials to the displaced in downtown Jacksonville. (Maybe Sivack’s art will prove useful to future fund-raising efforts.)
These days, Sivack pushes a baby-stroller that functions as much as a walker as it does as a cart for transporting possessions, sometimes including a dog but more lately his art supplies. He found the materials—paints, colored pencils, paper—beside a dumpster in Avondale late last year, and that may well turn out to be the most interesting stories of “bonepicking” (collecting found objects thrown away by others) you’re likely to ever hear.
Less than a year into his new career, and Sivack has already picked up one powerful and influential patron in the local art scene: the infamous Lee Harvey, who is himself undergoing a sort of creative renaissance following a successful battle against cancer. “I think it’s a fascinating story. Sonny is very talented,” he says. Sitting at a Starbucks, within a few yards of Sivack (his wife was not around), Harvey held court like he does, while watching him add to a painting he did on an ancient pull-down projector screen (a piece he ended up selling for $300 a couple weeks later). Sivack is particular—he only paints with watercolors, and he only paints on either recycled or found materials.
“If Sonny was selling in a gallery, he’d be making money,” he adds. “Given more time, and the materials, Sonny could be a professional artist—and this is the right neighborhood to be doing this in. He’s a very nice man; he’s having a rough time, but it just goes to show that just because someone is going through a rough time, they can still make beautiful art. “It’s a blessing that he found those art supplies—things happen for a reason,” says Harvey, whose attitudes toward religion are well-known.
Having discovered this newfound talent, Sivack is wasting no time. By his own account, he has already completed about 60 paintings in the first four months of his career. Storing them would be a huge problem, if not for the fact that he’s already sold them all to collectors around the neighborhood, at prices ranging from $25 to $100; he keeps pictures of them all on a flash drive. “It’s been a real eye-opener, I tell ya—it’s been a 180-degree turn,” he says. “I used to have a bunch of free time on my hands, being disabled and all. Now I wake up in the morning, clock-in and join the world, you know?”
Even if Sonny Sivack doesn’t prove to be the next great folk-art sensation, art itself has already transformed his life, in a way that nothing before was able to do. “[Disability] set me back for a while,” he says, “then I gave it all up, really. No family, local boy; I’ve always been out by myself, like a traveling nomad. I pretty much gave up on life, and look what God’s given me!” We often hear the old cliché about one man’s trash being another man’s treasure; Sivack is here to remind us that, trash or treasure, it’s ultimately about the man.
email@example.com; April 24, 2012