Lionel Sosa works on Elvira Cisneros’ portrait as a gift for former HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros after the death of his mother. Credit: Courtesy / Lionel Sosa

“Whatever I do, I do it with a passion.”

Those are the words of Lionel Sosa, a San Antonio Westside native and one who went on to accomplish tremendous achievements.

After graduating from Lanier High School and serving in the United States Marine Corps, Sosa returned back home and designed neon and plastic signs, eventually forming his own graphic studio; called Sosart.

According to TIME Magazine, Sosa is one of the top 25 influential Hispanics in the nation. He received the prestigious title in 2005, something he remains proud of to this day.

The man can influence. In 1974, Sosart expanded and merged with another ad agency, called Ed Yardang. In ’78, Texas’s first Republican Senator John Tower hired the agency to help garner Hispanic votes.

In spite of Sosa’s lack of experience in politics, Tower won 37% of the Hispanic vote, making it the largest percentage of Hispanics voting for a state-wide Republican candidate. The greatest amount prior was 8%.

The triumphant Tower campaign attracted bigwig companies like Coca-Cola, Burger King, Bacardi Rum, Dr. Pepper and Sprint to Sosa, seeking his advice to help sell their products to a Latino demographic.

In 1980, Sosa created another ad agency called Sosa and Associates. In time, it became the largest Hispanic agency in the nation.

Currently retired, Sosa remains a prominent figure in San Antonio and a chicano marketing pioneer and legend. He and his wife Kathy run a consulting firm called Sosa & Sosa.

But in his heart, he’s always wanted to paint.

Now in his golden years, he’s picking up a paintbrush.

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Artistic Aspirations at a Young Age

“As a child, I knew I always wanted to paint,” Lionel said. “It’s one of those things that never leaves you. I always has a passion for it, but you use your passion in what you’re working with, which was advertising,” Lionel said. “I can now focus that passion on other interests.”

Before advertising, Lionel had artistic aspirations. He wished to work at Disney, and shortly after leaving the service, visited California with a portfolio of works in hopes of nabbing a job. He was turned down, and returned home, where his career in advertising kicked off.

Now retired, he has the chance to pursue that dream. His latest project, “Portraits by Lionel” is going back to grassroots. He is dedicating his time to painting.

Three times a week, the Sosas retreat to their studio in Castroville, Texas to paint together. Located in a restored Alsatian-styled farmhouse built in the late 1800’s, the two relax in a quaint neighborhood, with little to distract them from their art.

I had the opportunity to visit the Sosa Studio to speak to Lionel and Kathy. They spoke of their inspirations, dreams and projects over a chilled glass of lemonade.

Inspiration and Painting the Path to Success 

The Sosas have formal training from Nelson Shanks: world-renowned painter, art historian, teacher, and connoisseur. Shanks is known for his portraits and the Sosa’s studio is mainly filled with portraits. They shared the same teacher, but took completely polar interpretations of the lessons.

Anything can inspire the Sosas, and they show a great appreciation for embroidery, textures, and all expressions of Latino art. You can hire either of them to commission a painting for you, but it’s much more than that.

A beautiful profile, a gleam in the eyes, a smile, anything can inspire the Sosas, so if a kind eyed, gentle, diminutive man with white hair or a graceful, elegant silver-haired lady ask to take a photo of you, it just may be them.

Lionel Sosa and his wife Kathy share a candid moment in the house. Photo by Amanda Lozano.
Lionel Sosa and his wife Kathy  in their house. Photo by Amanda Lozano.

Both integrate Mexican people and culture as inspiration. Kathy preferred Latina Woman as her subjects, and her depictions of them are colorful, bold and abstract. She also makes patterns out of huipil, bright colorful patterns that appeal to the eye. She loves telling the stories behind each picture, and her eyes sparkle when she speaks of the symbolism and meaning of her work.

“My wife is a much better artist than me,” Lionel laughed.

This is where Lionel’s marketing skills come in. “You need to have stories for these subjects. If you can’t find two or three compelling components, then you aren’t going to be able to sell your work.”

Lionel took on a more realistic approach, and his portraits resemble his subjects to a T.

Both styles are unique, and cannot be mistaken for another artist. Their styles are distinguished and easily recognizable, even amongst other works.

Maybe you’ve seen some of their art. Paintings from both Sosas are proudly displayed in many of San Antonio’s prominent landmarks, including Texas A&M San Antonio, Palo Alto College, Frost Bank, and other places across the nation.

Kathy picked up a paintbrush and almost immediately rose to national fame. Her first exhibit “Huipiles: a Celebration” debuted in the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. in 2007.

To this day, she receives a monthly check from royalties from a licensing company she worked with years ago.

“Every month I get a small check from that company. Little amounts, $12,” Kathy said, laughing. “Lionel and I have a small joke, how much are they sending this month?”

Lionel had a little more trouble finding a key audience.

Prior to “Portraits,” Lionel took inspiration from working Latinos across the country. He painted a series called “Invisible Latinos.”

“The invisible Latinos are the ones that are building the country. They are doing construction, putting the roof, putting highways, cooking food, caring for the kids. Nobody sees them, but they are building the country. Yet nobody gives them a second look. You know they are there, but do you know them? Are they your heroes? No. That’s what I wanted to paint,” he said.

Unfortunately, according to Lionel, “Invisible Latinos” didn’t sell well. He hosted shows, but the paintings were never purchased.

“I was painting to the darkness, because the work would just end up in the warehouse. ” Lionel said.

He finally got his chance when Maria Ferrier-Hernandez, former president of A&M San Antonio approached him looking for art to decorate the halls of the school.

“Maria wanted art that depicted people and our culture. When she saw what I had, she said ‘This is perfect. I’ll buy everything you have,’” he said.

They share a likeness. Tom Frost smiles at the unveiling of his portrait, painted by Lionel Sosa. Photo by Lionel Sosa.
They share a likeness. Tom Frost smiles at the unveiling of his portrait, painted by Lionel Sosa. Photo by Al Rendon. Credit: Courtesy / Lionel Sosa

With the money Sosa made from A&M, he purchased more materials and began “Portraits.” He has painted the faces of many of San Antonio’s prominent leaders, including retired San Antonio Banker Tom Frost, A&M San Antonio’s former President Dr. Maria Ferrier-Hernandez, and former San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros’s mother, Elvira.

According to Lionel, that was his first step into his latest project, “Portraits By Lionel.”

“I can now call myself a legitimate artist, I was no longer painting to the darkness,” he said.

From their small studio in Castroville, Lionel and Kathy continue to capture the human spirit.

*Featured/top image: Lionel Sosa works on Elvira Cisneros’s portrait. Sosa painted it as a gift for former HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros after the death of his mother. Photo courtesy of Lionel Sosa.

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Amanda Lozano

Amanda Lozano is the editor-in-chief of Texas A&M University-San Antonio's student-run publication, The Mesquite. When she's not writing, she plays mariachi all over town.