Brandon Sonntag Borgia

From teaching people with disabilities at Hillside House to leading art classes and workshops for the Art Walk for Kids program, Brandon Sonntag Borgia, `93 follows a colorful path built on his love of art, the environment and sharing the joys of self-expression. 

For over 15 years, Borgia has built a business providing customized services for residential, commercial and marine clientele. His projects include design, illustration, custom finishes and full-scale wall murals. His latest project, “Wildlife 101,” painted on the walls surrounding the new outdoor play yard at the Orfalea Family Children’s Center, was inspired by his love of the local species above and below the waterline here in Santa Barbara. 

After Borgia graduated with a degree in environmental studies from UC Santa Barbara, he went on to complete the commercial diving program at Santa Barbara City College, and worked in commercial diving and marine construction for several years. He then went on to start his own custom painting business, and serves as an art educator for Art Walk for Kids and Adults. He has taught students from Los Prietos, Monte Vista Elementary, Vieja Valley Elementary, Devereux of Santa Barbara, Hillside House and Juvenile Hall. 

In this Alumni Q&A, discover how Borgia went from painting boats to taking on the biggest project of his life at the Orfalea Family Children’s Center at UCSB. 

Wildlife 101 by Brandon Sonntag Borgia

Did you always love art? Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Del Mar, San Diego, along the coast. I had a very family-oriented background – all of it, complete with family sit-down dinners. 

I was always into drawing – I’ve loved drawing since second grade. I wound up doing paint jobs to supplement my income during college. I often did “odds and ends” house painting. Needless to say, it wasn’t always artistic. 

In 1994, I got an air brush for Valentine’s day. This allowed me to go and paint all my drawings. Soon I started working as a professional artist – and have kept working since! 

As far as art education, I think I did an art appreciation class. Not many art classes but when I look back at my notebooks – there are all kinds of doodles and sketches. I was always into it. Though when I was a kid, I never thought of being a working artist. 

Talk to us about your higher education journey, from junior college to UCSB and then to SBCC. What made you choose your major at UCSB? How did it help build your career as an artist today?

I went to Mira Costa College junior college in San Diego and transferred as a junior to UCSB. I remember a lot of summer school and I loving my time at UCSB. After graduating, I knew I was going to go to Santa Barbara City College to do the marine technology program. 

In high school, I had a lot of encouragement and did sports. By the time I got to junior college, I realized that people were there because they wanted to be, and I started to take school a lot more seriously. It was good that I started at a junior college - it was like an extension of high school––an easier transition. 

At UCSB, I was reading a couple of books a week––the quarterly system sped everything up. I loved the environmental studies program and chose that major after a human ecology class at Mira Costa. I had always been an outdoors person, doing scuba, snorkeling, biking and hiking. When I was picking schools, UCSB was the obvious choice because of the acclaim of its Environmental Studies program. That’s what I wanted to study, so UCSB was the only school I applied to. 

I was still unsure what to do with it all. What I loved about Environmental Studies is that it’s a broad major -- there’s a science side, social side, and there’s economics. I was pretty undecided what avenue I wanted to go, but I really learned a lot. Right before graduating from UCSB, the marine technology field and commercial diving really appealed to me. 

After UCSB I did the marine tech. program at Santa Barbara City College and worked in marine contracting for a few years. (Though during that time, I did more painting than diving.) 

What were some of your first jobs in college and right after graduation?

I was a bellman at the Biltmore – that was awesome. The four Seasons has five star service training – it really helped shape me. That was a great job to do while I did my city college classes. I met a lot of great people there. I have more lifelong friends from the Biltmore than anywhere else. 

After that I was pretty focused on getting a job in commercial diving. I worked at Oceaneering in Ventura and stayed close to Santa Barbara. A lot of this was due to the environment here––the beach on one side… the mountains on the other. That’s what I loved about San Diego, except everything seems closer in SB. Hiking is right here, the surfing and diving too. I hiked a lot in San Diego, but it was always dry and more desert like. In Santa Barbara, you have Seven Falls and creek hikes. And just the town – Santa Barbara is a wonderful community. 

How did you get started in your art career?

Marine contracting got really slow, so on the side––having gotten my air brush and doing a couple of professional art jobs––I painted. I worked on the Marine Mammal Center boat and met carpenters doing yacht restoration. Working in the painting industry, I discovered more and more how much I loved the artistic aspect of it. 

Who are your favorite artists? What inspires you?

It’s a mix – I love Michelangelo, and I really love what Wyland does: huge environmental works. I’ve been very inspired to do more wildlife art. 

I also love working with kids. At the Art Walk for Kids and Adults program, I teach at-risk as well as developmentally disabled members of our community. We’ve also done a lot of after-school programs and workshops that incorporate the kids’ art pieces. I have done some elementary after-school programs at Monte Vista and Vieja Valley schools, as well as teaching at Hillside House. That is work is really rewarding and fun. Some of my students are in wheelchairs and some don’t have a lot of motor skills. It’s really awesome and very fulfilling to be able to help special needs people create and express themselves. 

What drew you to work on the mural at the Orfalea Family Children’s Center at UCSB? Talk to us about your process in creating the images for this project.

Funny enough, it began with a boat client – one of my clients whose yacht I painted in the harbor. Years went by, and I ran into my client’s wife. She mentioned her friend, Leslie Voss, then the director of the Orfalea Family Children’s Center, and the project with the outdoor yard. 

They asked me if I would create a mural in the area near the play structure, and I said “yes!” When I saw what the program was, I was inspired. I gave Leslie a proposal in 2014 and didn’t hear back until 2015. 

Once underway the Orfalea Family Children’s Center mural was a lot of inspiration and work. Leslie gave me a list of some of the elements she wanted. I did some rough sketch design work of animals––undersea animals I loved, and paintings of the Channel Islands. I wanted to incorporate that environment in the work. We all agreed that we should do local S.B. species. More Garibaldis and Sheepsheads – what we see here underwater. That’s how we selected the animals – everything I painted was all based on local species. 

The mural materialized from there. I thought it would be a month or so of quick work– it took me 5 months! It was “develop as we go” – like the wave wall. Originally I thought that would be a dive bell, but Leslie didn’t want anything human made, nothing anthropogenic. All natural. So the dive bell turned into a wave – that’s how it unfolded. 

I talked the UCSB painters to into painting the window frames green – that became the basis of a forest. I wanted to do a wall of seascapes – both above and below water. I got more and more experimental. A lot of it was building images around the architecture – for the lamps on the seascape wall, I chose the colors for the kelp forest to match. I did the same thing with the new awning and the forest wall. The color of the fabric became the green base color for my forest scene. I also knew I wanted to do some cool airbrushed skies. I had to figure out how to profile the islands, how to transition from the wave to the tree. It all developed over time, with me deciding to change that, fix this, put the river running there, a little ocean on the mountain side wall… and it all had to be somewhat cohesive. 

Wildlife 101 Mural for the Orfalea Family Children’s Center at UC Santa Barbara, by Brandon Sonntag Borgia `93. Borgia painted wildlife currently found in Santa Barbara both above and below water. The mural inspires children with 101 animals depicted in settings that include the Los Padres National Forest and Santa Barbara Channel Islands.

As you worked on the OFCC mural, we were told that you also took the time to teach the kids about the animals you painted – what was that experience like?

That was the best and most difficult part! The kids were so excited. 

I had a couple of month’s window before they opened the playground. When they did open, the kids would come with their parents. By then, I was painting the animals over the background, from back to front. I already did the background – skies before birds, trees before flowers, etc. By the time the kids were there, they saw the progress. They would say “oh wow you have starfish now” or “oh wow there’s an alligator lizard” – it was so wonderful to see their reactions. 

I found myself interacting with the kids. They kept asking for paintbrushes to help. I gave them dry brushes so they could “paint.” They would constantly go through my reference materials. I would have books, magazines, photos – all kinds of wildlife art, to model my work. They would be asking if I would paint this or that. 

I would get there before the kids arrived and would paint for a couple of hours. By first recess, I needed to take lunch and cover everything. I took a giant piece of plywood and made a chalkboard to practice sketching. Before I painted that mural, I never painted a full-size deer or a 12-foot tall tree! – I usually use photo references for my work, not a lot of stencils. But for this project, I drew many of my animals on poster board and cut them out so I could work with positioning on a 100 feet of wall space. For example, for the pelican, I thought the bird would be in a different spot in the sky. I would run back 30 or 40 feet…and yes, it looked like I needed to move it further. 

The kids were so into positioning the stencils and asking questions like why the fox had no eyes yet, so I would explain my process. They were so involved. One of the kids, upon seeing the new awning, commented, “That’s a shade structure dad,” in his 3-year-old voice. It was so hilarious! 

What do you feel was your biggest takeaway from the OFCC mural project?

I’ve painted a ton of kid’s rooms over the years, yet I rarely get to see the kid’s reactions. That was the greatest thing about working at Orfalea. At times I stressed about going so over time – but it was one of those life-changing projects. I kept telling myself, “This is the BIGGEST mural you have ever painted!” 

Halfway through, I stopped thinking about the time or the money. My attitude became that this was more than just a job, it was an opportunity for me to really be an artist, and focus on nothing but creativity. I always determined where things would go, but the kids had a bit of input…and it was great to see their reaction when I implemented what they suggested. That kept me motivated – I turned down a lot of other work at the time of the mural, but it came back tenfold – inspiring kids and at the same time networking with the contractors working on the playground. 

Coming from an environmental studies major and doing an environmental mural – it’s fantastic! I just did a wildlife education mural at UCSB! Not only was it a great experience, I learned so much as an artist. I have since gone back and painted the Campbell Hall ceiling. I used to have classes in the building and now I take my daughter there for shows. I also worked on one of the new rooms in the biology department. A new lab room – and even that was neat, to be back on campus, painting. I spent a lot of money at this school and now the school is hiring me to come back and work here. Through my non-profit, we used to teach at Devereux – I did some murals at the dorms and recently did work on some of the warehouse structures. It was awesome to be out there working near the butterfly preserve. 

What do you do on your days off?

Being self-employed, I technically don’t have any ‘days off’. I’m very active and I go to the beach as much as I can with my daughter to foster a healthy respect of the outdoors. I do a lot of photo hikes, taking my camera to capture images to paint. Even on my days off, I’m catching up with clients, checking on the status of a project or planning the next one. 

What’s next for you as an artist?

The whole environmental issue for me has always been big – it never goes away. That’s what I love about the mural – teaching environmentalism to kids. I feel like my major was very broad, and at UCSB I was able to take so many classes that I was interested in. Now I’m interested in getting kids excited about art and the environment. 

As a contact painter, I get so busy -- sometimes it gets in the way of being creative. But you have to create your own reality, no excuses. One of the things I hope to do – and this has been my goal since April last year – is to do another wildlife mural at another UC school. 

After I finished the UCSB mural, I went to a fundraiser for the Channel Islands Marine Mammal Institute. I was on such on an artistic high when I ran into a City College professor and told him I had just painted the biggest mural of my life. I’m now conceptualizing a mural for City College - coming soon!