'No one does faces like the Jew in Venice. I got style.' : Borgos on the Beach

Gil Borgos is hunched over his sketch pad, squinting into the bright afternoon sun, trying to register the finite details of the face he is drawing.

"Move your hands," he is saying, "move your toes, move any damned thing you want, but don't move your head."

The sitting is taking place on the Venice boardwalk in front of the Sidewalk Cafe, where Borgos is so famous that a lox and bagel plate is named in his honor.

"No one does faces like the Jew in Venice," he says in wry self-reference, peering at his subject from under scruffy gray eyebrows. "I got style."

Behind him, a man walks by dressed in the brown hooded robe of a medieval monk. He is mumbling and appears stoned. The weather is scorching hot, but the monk is oblivious to it.

"Amen," the monk shouts suddenly, and drifts south, like human flotsam.

Then a mime passes, followed by a punk rocker in black leather, a juggler with white Indian clubs and an endless parade of young beauties in what is being called the "barely legal bikini."

Around the corner, Tom Selleck shoots a scene for "Magnum P.I." Down the boardwalk, two street-corner comics perform for loose change. A man in a turban strums a guitar.

Borgos ignores the passing parade, concentrating instead on his subject with the intensity of a chicken hawk, which he slightly resembles.

Al Martinez

His face is tanned and deeply lined. He wears a Detroit Tigers baseball cap, a T-shirt that says "Nick's Hair Cuts" across the back, and shorts.

"I'm making your nose smaller," he tells the man he is sketching.

"You don't have to," the man says.

"I'm doing it," Borgos replies abruptly.

Every once in awhile, someone stops to watch him sketch. It bothers the artist not at all.

"What do you think?" he asks occasionally.

The replies are usually positive, but one man makes the mistake of telling him the sketch doesn't resemble the subject.

"Beat it," Borgos snaps.

A Japanese couple stops. The woman asks how much for the sketch. Borgos tells her. The man simply smiles.

"You must not speak English," Borgos says to him. "You just smile."

The man says nothing, but continues to smile.

"That's what you did all during the war, right?" Borgos says.

The man stops smiling. The couple walks away.

"I guess he spoke English," the artist says.

I first saw Borgos at an outdoor Beverly Hills art fair last month where he was street-sketching. Rather, I heard him at the art fair.

He was yelling at a barking dog to shut the hell up. Then he ordered a kid to get away and stop bothering him. My kind of man. So I followed him to Venice.

Borgos is a wiry 62. He came to L. A. from New York 20 years ago.

"I left under cover of booze and debts," he says. "Everyone else was painting, I was getting drunk. When I got married, I was so drunk I didn't know where anything was. We were divorced in '71. I haven't had a drink since."

He is not a victim anymore, Borgos says. He is free of booze, marriage and responsibility. He lives around the corner in a small, orange hotel that does not allow dogs. He pays $100 a month rent and the woman he lives with pays $48 a month.

Borgos sleeps on a couch in what he calls his studio, the woman sleeps on a mattress on the floor in what appears to be the kitchen.

"She's 57," Borgos says, putting the final touches on the sketch of the man on the boardwalk. "She teaches piano. We don't have sexual intercourse."

He does not actually say sexual intercourse. He uses a shorter, more concise term. It got him fired as an art teacher once. Mothers objected to their children copying the word.

"Damned fools," Borgos grumbles, remembering. "The kids were learning to paint. That's all that mattered."

His own formal instruction is almost nonexistent. He drew Tom Mix's horse from a photograph when he was 9. An old man liked it and tutored him for a while. As an adult, Borgos attended classes at L. A. City College, then quit.

"I like to draw buildings," Borgos says. "What else? I'm a New Yorker. My dream is to have a one-man show in New York. Tony Bill gave me my first show in '78. Tony Bill, the producer? What a great guy. I mention his name so often, people call me Tony Gil."

Women wave and call his name as they pass. Everybody knows Borgos. A knockout named Karen hangs around for a while, then leaves.

"I get hit on by a lot of women," Borgos confides. "I don't know why. I'm nice inside, I guess. I like women. You gotta go with the flow."

The sketch is finished. The man smiles.

"You caught me," he says.

Borgos shrugs. "That's it for the day," he says.

He gathers his stuff, including the bench, which is his. He bought it to assure a place to sketch every day. The bench has wheels so he can roll it in at night.

"I've been out here for 15 years," Borgos says. "I'm a fixture. You might say I'm the artist in residence of the Venice Boardwalk."

You might.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World