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Gus Sonnenberg


Acrylic and paint marker on 24″ x 24″ wood

Gus Sonnenberg was a champion wherever he competed, whether it was the gridiron or the squared circle he made his presence known and achieved their highest standards. Born 1898 in Michigan, he grew up on a farm and excelled at football, helping his team in 1915 go undefeated and cumulatively outscoring their opponents 211 to 7! After graduating college he joined the National Football League, playing for the Buffalo All Americans and the Columbus Tigers in 1923. In 1924 he played for the Pottsville Maroons (intimidating-sounding team, huh?) and helped them win the Anthracite League Championship that year. He played the next two seasons for the Detroit Panthers and then joined the Providence Steam Rollers in 1927, and playing on the 1928 NFL championship team there.

During his last two years with the team in 1927 and 1928 he began training as a professional wrestler, and quickly became a sensation in the sport as he modified several of his football maneuvers into wrestling moves, most notably with the flying tackle, a move that would evolve into the spear. He unsuccessfully challenged Ed ‘Strangler’ Lewis for the National Wrestling Alliance World Heavyweight Championship in 1928, but following his NFL championship season he successfully defeated Lewis the following year, holding it for nearly two years before losing it to Ed Don George. During those two years, Sonnenberg was easily the biggest draw in the entire sport. In 1933 he married actress Judith Allen, before suffering a heart attack four months later. While he was in the hospital, Judith cheated on him with, I kid you not, Gary Cooper! In 1939 he again held gold when he defeated Marv Westenberg for the Boston version of the American Wrestling Association World Heavyweight Championship. He lost it two weeks later to Steve ‘Crusher’ Casey. He died of leukemia in 1944 while serving in the Navy during World War II at the age of 46.

About the piece: This was all about breaking space and defining form. I first painted the background with a tan house paint. When that dried, further broke up the space with watered-down acrylics while subtly implying the form of the figure. I then brought in the minimal black acrylics to represent the features of the figure. That felt like it wasn’t enough, so I brought in a few outlines using a red paint marker. The composition was still not quite doing it for me, so to frame the figure without competing with the spaces I had already defined, I brought in those few whimsical white lines with a paint marker, and that made it all click!

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