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Trail artist's work features faces of Pulse victims

Trail artist of Pulse tragedy: "I can't let this go"

Artist Jeff Sonksen dabbed baby-blue paint on a small wooden canvas square that would become the face of Juan Chevez Martinez.

Sonksen, 48, best known for creating hundreds of portraits of celebrities, rock stars and other cultural icons on long stretches of the Seminole-Wekiva Trail, didn't know Martinez.

Nor did he know Amanda Alvear or Juan Ramon Guerrero or any of the 49 people slain June 12 at Pulse nightclub.

But he's painted the face of each one this week.

"When is the world going to get sick of this, man?" Sonksen said of the violence that killed them. "Look how many."

The stack of painted 1-foot-square panels had piled up to the chin of the 5-foot-8 artist.

In the wake of the tragedy, Sonksen created a mural in honor of Pulse on the side of Track Shack as a favor to the store's owners. He hadn't initially considered painting portraits of those who died. But last week, he popped open Facebook and saw a video shot inside the club before the shooting.

"It was just everybody dancing," Sonksen said as tears welled in his eyes. "It was like a happy song and everybody was happy and dancing and stuff ... I felt like I couldn't breathe watching it."

He said he thought of the victims, their families, their friends, the loss.

"I can't let this go," he said, rubbing his forehead with paint-stained fingers. "I can't stop thinking about what happened ..."

His wife, Maria, said Sonksen walked into their garage, pulled the door down, cranked up heavy metal and started painting.

When he finally emerged for a break hours later, he had painted 18 portraits at his Longwood home, working from a collage of photos he found on the Internet.

"You can't stop him once he gets going," she said.

Sonksen posted a short video of the portraits on a Facebook page called Paint The Trail.

It caught the attention of Galen Hertzell, an admirer of Sonksen's trail portraits and a volunteer at The Center, which provides advocacy, services and support for the LGBT community in Central Florida.

"If you have not placed those ...The Center would love to have them. Four of them were my friends ..." Hertzell said in a text.

Hertzell promised to find a permanent public home for Sonksen's art – either at Pulse, The Center or along the trail.

Sonksen's work features a broad mural of Orlando including images of downtown buildings, a Disney castle and the Orlando Eye over the phrase #OrlandoUnited. The 49 portraits will surround the mural, which is currently on display in downtown Sanford.

Although he has not yet seen Sonksen's work, Brian Alvear, whose sister Amanda died in the shooting, said the artist's work is one more expression of compassion and love that has comforted his family as they try to cope with her death.

"It's really, really breath-taking," he said.

Sonksen said he hopes people will see the portraits and realize the depth of what happened at Pulse.

"I just wanted to show how many people we lost," he said.

shudak@orlandosentinel.com or 407-650-6361.

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