Sam Bonilla

After leaving El Paso, Texas, to avoid rampant gang violence in the 1970s, local artist Samuel Bonilla has found a safe haven for his artistic expression in Madison.

Bonilla came from a family of musicians, a house full of guitars and four boys. He spent the first five years of his life in Juarez with his Mexican mother and Puerto Rican father.

“I wasn’t very academically oriented in high school, so it was either stay in El Paso, get a working class job, get a girl pregnant,” Bonilla said. “I hopped on a Greyhound, one-way ticket to Connecticut.”

Bonilla said he worked as a “glorified stock boy” at warehouses in Connecticut while getting his degree in a conglomerate of political science, American history and urban studies courses that took him seven years before he decided to move on to law school at the University of Wisconsin.

He studied for two-and-a-half years at the law school before realizing it was not what he was expecting and decided to leave to pursue his work as an artist.

Bonilla started by exploring music and poetry, dedicating himself to hang out at coffee shops, determined to write 10 poems a day.

“I always felt a strong need to be creative and expressive. I think while I was disillusioned for the law school experience, it really reaffirmed my personal need to be expressive and free with that,” Bonilla said.

A close friend of Bonilla’s encouraged him to pursue classes at UW in the Continuing Education Program, so he explored some art classes.

Bonilla said while he took a couple of life drawing classes and still life classes, most of his artistic education came from his own research and visits to museums.

“I didn’t know what that meant at the time, ‘life drawing.’ I thought that just meant we go and observe human life,” Bonilla said. “So I show up to my first life drawing class and there’s a senior citizen butt naked, laying on a chair spread-eagled right in front of me.”

Bonilla is a fan of abstract art and the way it is psychological and emotional, although it can be personally subjective. He said he incorporates the universal symbol of the figure to keep it relatable to his audience.

Bonilla said he has had a handful of coffee shop and gallery exhibits in Madison over the past two to three years, and he has recently started to explore online methods of promoting his artwork, where he has gotten collectors from New York and Florida to pick up his work.

Bonilla said he considers himself a post-modern “flaneur,” someone who spends a great deal of time at coffee shops, where people come together and have face-to-face conversations and discuss ideas.

“I do my shameless self-promoting at coffee shops,” Bonilla said. “It’s a collegiate environment, place of ideas, you get a lot of open-minded people willing to learn, talk about concepts, a lot of students, a lot of academics.”

Bonilla’s artwork has been featured in Madison’s Bright Red Studios and most recently the new Yellow Rose Gallery that recently opened on State Street, as well as at Fair Trade Coffeehouse. His work is also online at Saatchi art account.