Sunday, February 28, 2010

My Great Moment with Sergei Bongart

I first heard of Sergei from my great teacher and mentor, Charles Cross, in 1970. I think Sergei was teaching in Santa Monica at the time, but what interested me was Charles' designation--"the great Sergei Bongart." Charlie did not throw praise around much, so I was curious about this Russian teacher who struck fear and awe in everyone who encountered him. In 1980, after returning to California from Indianapolis to seek additional art training, I was directed by Don Putman to Sergei's classes in Los Angeles. I sought admittance with great anticipation. Sergei was teaching at the Business Men's Art Club in an old building that was once the Los Angeles School of Artistic Whistling. It was a victorian with two stories. Downstairs Sergei's proven devotees painted the figure, while novitiates were consigned to the upstair regions to sweat out the still life. Upon arrival at Sergei's dojo I was immediately ushered upstairs by his loyal assistant, Sonny (like Sony television) Apichapong. I was left alone with twenty or so still life set ups of plastic flowers, green bottles, copper pots, and stuffed fowl. After an hour of painting misery, I heard these clomping footsteps coming up the wooden stair case--it was Sergei! "Hower ju?" "Vut ju doink?" "Steel life es goot packtice." I had prepared myself for this initial encounter by memorizing the name and basic biography of every great Russian artist of the previous 100 years--Serov, Repin, Maliavan, Ivan Shiskin, Levitan, Constantinen, and all the rest. Sergei was really impressed if I must say so--not with my painting, but with my hastily acquired knowledge of Russin art history. So it began. From that day forward Sergei would clomp up the stairs about twenty minutes after class began, and we would discuss Russian art amid a few comments about my still life painting. "Too much color--paintink luk like monkey's behind." "Red is trouble--luk like Red Sea" "Too many wiggle schmigle brush strook." "Don't tink jus paint." "Put down strook and leave alone." Sergei would often paint right over the top of your efforts and do what amounted to a Sergei work over. He did this a number of times for me , and I would sell them to other students to pay my tuition.

Sergei was a typical professorial type who took every question as an cue for a ten minute lecture that would often vere off into personal anectdotes. The stories of drinking bouts with fellow artists, his hatred for the communists, stories of his life in Russia, his comments about artists living and dead just poured out in response to my poignant queries. I figured out how to push his Russian buttons. He hated the movie "Reds", but he loved Ronald Reagan who he felt was the first American President to stand up to the Soviets. It was easy to see his love and frustration with the Mother Country. He was certain that if he ever returned to the homeland he would be imprisioned in Siberia for good.

After a few months of study, Sergei gave me my first homework assignment. "Go home, paint white paintink, bring back, I critique." I gathered every white object I could find--eggs, paper towels, napkins, plastic spoons--whatever. I painted a 40by4o canvas and plunked it down in front of the whole class--and Sergei. "Dis is goot paintink--now.. go home paint red paintink." That was all he said--but, he did say that it was "goot." I had scored, I was an artist!--Sergei told me so with the word "goot." So the next week I returned with a painting of every red object I could find. Same program--only this time Sergei placed my 40by40 painting on a easel in front of what seemed a much larger class. I felt this effort was superior to the last, and I awaited to be knighted, to be elevated to the level of the gods, to receive a great big okie dokie from the master himself--in front of the home crowd! Well.....you guessed it. "Dis is not art" was the opening salvo--followed by--"Dis is like baby wit coolorink buk--draw circle, color in circle." "Is like little boy wit crayon." By this time Sonny was doubled over in restrained laughter, the rest of the class was dead silent. Sergei turned and marched off into his office leaving me alone, stripped to the bone, in front of 40 devotees and Sonny. I felt that my guts had been looted clean of all my artistic hopes. So I went on the attack-- "F.....you, and F...you, and F...you too." I then retreated upstairs burning with rage and embarrasment. Ten minutes later Sonny came up and said, "Sergei wants to speak with you privately in his office."

As I made my way downstairs, I was certain that I would be asked to leave the school. I had gone off like a mad man verbally attacking innocent bystanders. I had completely blown my shot at study with the great one--what could I do, where could I go, how would I live this down? I thought about just heading out to my car and driving off--leaving his F..ing school and its dummies--I was really undone. But I decided to face the music. Sonny ushered me past the 40 students in the life class who seemed to give me the evil eye. Down the hall to the left was Sergei's office. This was off limits to students, but this day I was invited in. Sonny opened the door, and there sat Sergei behind his desk waiting for me.

There were four great moments in my student years that I felt shaped my destiny as an artist. 'They are written on the fleshly tablets of my heart, and I can talk about the time, the place, and the psychological context of each one of them. What occurred in Sergei's office that day in the summer of 1980 was one of these moments. At that point in my life, I felt I had nothing going for me except a beautiful wife and four beautiful children--no certain career, no money earning capacity--no mojo! My wife, Diana, had gone back to nursing so I could pursue my art--we were living in voluntary poverty in those years so I could study and paint all day with the outside chance that I would eventually amount to something and make a living at it. And now this! It was a great privilidge to study with Sergei, but you had better be serious--from time to time he would stage back door revivals to run off the deadwood--those who were there for looks or on a whim. And now I was about to join the ranks of the discarded. Well to make it short--Sergei stood up and began, "Why you doo dis?" "You could be great artist, but you scare people--you like Bolshovik." "Now... go--upstairs--go paint--shut up--just work--go."--and that was it. I was not kicked out as I had feared, and he seemd to let me off the hook with minimum scolding and a few exhortations. I felt the blood, the mojo, the soul return to my body. I was going to live after all! Things seemed to accelerate from then on--I had been given the grace I needed at the right time--I moved downstairs with the devotees--a year later I said goodby to The School of Artistic Whistling, to Sonny, and to the great one. The rest is just more process--and grace. Don Hatfield

15 comments:

  1. I too had the great pleasure to paint with a Russian master. Mine, Stas Borodin, eventually invited me to exhibit with him in the great Artist Union Hall in Saint Petersburg. Those Russians may not know how to express themselves well with english words, but they sure do know how to paint!

    Somehow, they keep a very warm place in our hearts...

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  2. Don, this is a fabulous piece of writing. It grabbed at my emotions more than I would have expected, maybe because of where I am in my own journey of artistic development, or maybe because it is just so well done.
    I wonder if the prelude to any real growth must be some kind of "emptying". I tend to think it is necessary.

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  3. Deb: I believe you are dead on with the "empting" thing--it is always the prelude to "grace"--don't ya think?

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  4. Don, thank you for sharing that wonderful story! I once met Sunny and as a fan of Bongart, I appreciate a peek into what must have been an incredible, pivotal point in your art career.

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  5. Yes--those were years of magic for sure. Sergei's bigger than life aspect created wonderment in all of us and give us a sense of the bigness of art.

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  6. Brilliant post and blog, Don. I'll keep my response to that powerful recollection brief...more, please.

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  7. Candace: Thanks--there is more--much more. I was surpirsed how this recollection grabbed me after 30 years--I'm just getting old and sentimental.

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  8. Don,
    When did you realize that you are gifted as a writer (with something to say) as well as your wonderful gift of ART?
    I surely appreciate your words, the message, along with your Fine Art.
    Nora

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  9. That is a riveting narrative. Thanks for sharing a glimpse of your past.

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  10. Jeremy: Thanks bro--I am curious about your ministry and what it is like in an enviorenment like Saddleback Church.

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  11. This is the meatiest, most real blog going - by far!

    And we're loving the hell out of it!

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  12. Wow! What a story! I think all artists want to find a truly great mentor, the one who will teach them the world. Sergei appears to have been your 'root guru' at that specific point in time. I had a mentor in high school and the lessons he taught me equipped me with skills that were extremely far-reaching beyond the confines of school, and gave me a much needed grounding whilst in school. I can only hope that I find such a mentor again for my development in art. Another fabulous post Don, and a truly great story!

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  13. You will find your mentor, Heather --when the student is ready, the teacher always shows up.

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  14. All my stories are about crazy Surgery attendings...and believe me, they are all pathological, brilliant and nuts! Unfortunately I will probably never be able to tell stories about studying with you unless you die soon. LOL. Thanks for the inspiration and persperation. K

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  15. K: The pleasure is all ours isn't it?

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