HOLLYWOOD — Daniel Pontet, an artist and activist known for his large-scale expressive works but also for his sketches of some of South Florida’s greatest courtroom dramas, has died.
Pontet, who moved to Florida from Uruguay in the early 1990s, had drawn scenes from important state and international criminal trials and worked as a political cartoonist for newspapers and magazines and had become a staple of Hollywood’s monthly ArtWalk event, where he would often paint with his feet to the beat of local drummers and other musicians.
In his private life, he was known as a present and loving father who would take his daughters and friends – new and old – for coffee. He studied Buddhist teachings and became a vegetarian, but still cooked his daughter’s favorite salmon dish.
Pontet died of heart failure in his sleep on April 11, his family said. He was 64.
Born in Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay, Pontet moved to Miami in 1991. For the last few years he has been living near Hollywood’s Young Circle in an apartment full of realistic paintings that look like photographs, wild abstract and expressionist works, sculptures and other 3D pieces.
“He was a very generous person, very caring,” said his daughter Sophia Pontet. “He was always very present in everyone’s life. Anyone who was friends with him would say that, he was always there for her.”
Pontet would do anything to help someone, even if he barely knew her, she said, but he was still present in every aspect of his daughters’ lives.
“Art was his life. Everything in his life was art, even cooking,” she said. “He became a vegetarian, but he used to make really good salmon.
A favorite memory that often comes to mind for Sophia Pontet was her frequent coffee outings with her father and sister.
“He used to do that all the time growing up in Uruguay, so he used to take my sister and I over for coffee all the time and we just talked about life.” She said.
About 100 people mourned the death of Pontet at a vigil outside the SASA Cafe in Hollywood on Saturday night.
Jeffrey Lee, owner of Resurrection Drums in Hollywood, developed a close bond with Pontet over the years. Lee, who organized and hosted the ArtWalk event, choked back tears as he recited a poem and spoke about Pontet’s work, life and legacy.
“Daniel Pontet was an artist,” Lee said. “He was a father. What a great father. He was a friend and a community activist. He lived art. His life was art.”
Pontet has turned his nearby apartment into an art studio, where he often made coffee, burned incense sticks and played Indian music, according to Lee.
“There were no televisions, no fake laughter, no news, no interruptions in his life,” he said.
In addition to the art he creates for himself and his community, he has drawn court sketches of prominent defendants in federal court cases in South Florida and Latin America for the Associated Press, Washington Post, Reuters, CNN, Miami Herald and countless other news outlets.
Among those he outlined in court are:
- Accused Chinese spy Yujing Zhang arrested after allegedly invading Mar-a Lago
- Trump’s ally Roger Stone at his trial for witness tampering and lying to prosecutors
- Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio in court for alleged involvement in the January 6 riots
- Cesar Sayoc, the accused South Florida mail bomber
- Former Seminole County tax collector Joel Greenberg at his child trafficking trial
Drawing people often accused of heinous crimes took an emotional toll on Pontet, according to those who knew him. Being around suspects and hearing detailed allegations would upset him. But he did his best to focus on his work and keep the spirits up with those he interacted with in the courtroom, colleagues said.
Paula McMahon, a former reporter who served federal courts for the Sun Sentinel in South Florida, met with Pontet several times during her assignment.
“Daniel was an exceptionally talented artist across genres,” said McMahon, now spokeswoman for the Broward County Attorney’s Office. “He had the ability to walk into a courtroom and quickly and accurately capture the essence of what was happening there.
“Cameras aren’t allowed in federal courts, but Daniel was able to bring the scene to life and convey the emotion and drama of the courtroom to people who weren’t there.”
Pontent can do with his feet what most artists can’t do with his hands, McMahon said. She characterized him as a “caring and kind” man who adored his daughters and beamed with pride.
Pontet has also done political caricatures of dictators and other prominent American and foreign political figures, as well as caricatures of celebrities, athletes, politicians and others for the Miami Herald’s Spanish-language publication El Nuevo Herald.
As a young man in Uruguay he studied with artists such as Esteban Garino, Americo Sposito and Hector Laborde. In previous interviews, he spoke about the impact that political conflicts, both in Uruguay and around the world, have had on his work, often creating a sense of conflict and colour. He also studied Art History at the University of Uruguay.
After immigrating to the United States, Pontet studied sculpture and welding at Sardi’s studio in Miami Beach. As technology developed, he learned graphic design and other digital arts.
Pontet also taught art in his own studios in Uruguay and Miami during the 80’s and 90’s.
He has won several awards for his work, including first place in the Heineken Hispanic Mural Program in 2004; 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place for Best Original Art in the 2003 City of Las Vegas Arts Grants and Funding Support Program; and first place in a 1987 design competition at the Victoria Plaza Hotel in Montevideo, Uruguay.
In 2010, the Fusionarte Association named him one of the “Top 100 Latinos in Miami”. He has also exhibited his art and performed live at Art Americas and Art Basel Miami.
In 2013, he created a one-story mural depicting two standing knights and another on a horse at the Hollywood Academy of Arts & Science.
“His eye for detail and passion for quality made him our muralist of choice,” said Donte Fulton, the Principal of the Charter School, at the time. “Mr. Pontet was able to take a simple vision and create a wonderful work of art for all to experience.”
At the Hollywood ArtWalk performances, dubbed “Reactionary Impulse Art,” Pontet listened to musicians—often drummers and percussionists. Once he internalized the rhythms they played, He began painting with his feet and almost dancing.
Evan Kline, one of the drummers who often accompanied Pontet during performances, said her drumming would speed up or slow down depending on the colors and shapes the artist was using.
“It’s definitely a symbiotic relationship,” Kline told the Sun Sentinel at a 2013 ArtWalk performance. “It’s not just our energy that feeds him. He feeds us too.”
Kline said at the time that the show was spiritually uplifting, especially for those participating with their own instruments.
“People can show up with something to bang or shake and get into the rhythm with us,” he said. “You can bring djembes (hand drums), congas, bongos, floor toms, maracas, cowbells, pots, pans. It’s South Florida, everything works.”
Painting with your feet is physically demanding, Pontet said in 2013. Performances typically lasted an hour, with Pontet painting at least half of that time. It often took a while for the subject of the painting to take shape. The participants would gasp and clap as they began to recognize the topic.
“When I’m done, my whole body hurts and it takes a few days to get back in shape,” he said. “It’s hard to keep your balance when you’re standing over slippery paint. There are times when I have to adopt a skier’s stance, you know, where you’re standing with your legs wide apart for balance.”
Celia Brugman, Pontet’s sister-in-law, recalled a family vacation in New Orleans, where Pontet and his older daughter drew pictures while enjoying jazz music from outside the bars and nightclubs. They only painted for fun, Brugman recalled, but several people wanted to buy the paintings, saying Sophia Pontet sold her first artwork for $1 when she was only a few years old.
“He was one of the most positive people, if not the most positive person I’ve ever met,” said Lisa Liotta, director of rehabilitation and operations at the Hollywood Community Redevelopment Agency. “He’s always had the ability to turn around negative situations and that’s hard now.”
Pontet is survived by his two daughters, Sophia, 18, and Francesca, 15.
An art exhibition and celebration of his life is scheduled for Wednesday, April 20 from 6:00 p.m. to 7:30 p.m Hollywood ArtsPark Gallery, 1 Young Circle, Hollywood, FL 33020.