Friday, March 7, 2014


I first heard of Sergei from my great teacher and mentor, Charles Cross, in 1970. 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 held oil painting classes at the Business Men's Art Club, an old building that was once the Los Angeles School of Artistic Whistling. It was an ancient two story Victorian that had achieved historical monument status. Downstairs Sergei's proven devotees painted the figure from life, while novitiates were consigned to the upstairs region 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 my first hour of painting misery, I heard these clomping footsteps coming up the wooden staircase--it was Sergei! "Hower ju?" "Vut ju doink?" "Steel life es goot packtice" (Russian idiom anglicized).

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 Russian art history. My strategy was to connect any way I could with the Great Master. My early painting skill was marginal at best, but that would all change--I had gained his attention at this point and that was good enough. The thought of private moments with Sergei was golden indeed. I felt special. The future looked bright.

So it began. From that first day forward Sergei would hike up the winding staircase 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 my 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. This pissed off Sonny--but I was broke and desperate to learn.

Sergei was a typical professorial type who took every question as a cue for a ten minute lecture that would often veer off into personal anecdotes. 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 imprisoned 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 40 by 40in canvas and plunked it down in front of the whole class--and Sergei. "Dis is goot (good) 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 in front of what seemed a much larger class. I felt this effort was superior to the last, and I waited to be knighted, to be elevated to the level of the gods, to receive the great big okie dokie from the master himself--in front of the home crowd! 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--", and, and too!" I retreated upstairs burning with rage and embarrassment.

Ten minutes later Sonny came up and said, "Sergei wants to speak with you privately in his office."As I was escorted downstairs, I was certain that I would be kicked out of 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 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 the Holy of Holies--Sergei's office. This was strictly off limits to students, but this day I was invited in--I was mortified. 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 with four small children in voluntary poverty in those years so I could study and paint all day with the outside chance that I would eventually become an artist and make a living at it. And now this!

It was a great privilege 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 Bolshivik." "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 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! My learning and painting skill seemed to accelerate from then on--I had been given the grace I needed at the right time.

A fresh breeze had swept across my career dreams. My hope and ambition reached new heights. I moved downstairs with the devotees to paint from the live nude. I began to receive Sergei’s praise and the respect of the class. A year later I said goodbye to The School of Artistic Whistling, to Sonny, and to the Great One. My dream of becoming a self-supporting oil painter was soon realized—thanks in part to that great moment with Sergei.

Don Hatfield

Postscript: To this day I can still hear Sergei’s footsteps ascending that old wooden staircase. I recall the thrill, the fear and awe of that sound. All of his teaching and spirit have long since been internalized. I have heard his voice in a thousand canvasses. There are no more great teachers out there for me now—it is my turn now, my day, my life. Strange though—in some ways, at 67, I still fell like that young guy four decades ago stuck upstairs waiting for the Great One.


  1. Great piece, Don. You are now the teacher.

  2. NEVER, NEVER, NEVER delete this blog.

  3. And please write about the other three "moments." Thank you.

  4. Powerful story brother...won't forget it!

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