So feeling cheated at the end of my freshman year I decided to go directly to one of the teachers and ask for the secret. I was specific, I wanted to know the secret to painting a New York City street scene. We were in New Jersey just minutes away from Manhattan, and the romantic idea of being the artist out on a city sidewalk with my easel painting a street scene seemed like something I'd really enjoy. The teacher I set out to ask was Mr. Bonavito, the rumor was that he had exhibited with the legendary Picasso. Whether or not that was true didn’t diminish my respect for his practical advice. Since it was his brutal honesty, “That’s crap!” and encouragement, “Don’t be afraid to make a mess.” that always propelled me forward. I figured if anyone would be willing to give it to me straight it would be Mr. Bonavito. So next the time I saw him in the hallway I got right to the point.
“Mr. Bonavito, I want to know how to paint a New York City street scene.”
He replied, “Just paint fruit.”
Stunned I asked, “Just paint fruit?" I continued "But I want to learn how to paint a New York street scene, you know, out on the sidewalk with my easel and pastels.”
“I heard you.” Mr. Bonavito reassured me, “If you want to learn how to paint a New York street scene; just paint fruit. What you need to do this summer is; every day set up a still-life with fruit and do a painting of it. ”
“OK.” I reluctantly responded.
I was a little disappointed, but secretly I was relieved. Although I liked dreaming about being the lone artist painting out on a New York City street, I was terrified to actually do it. So that summer I followed Mr. Bonavito's advice; religiously. Everyday I arranged fruit into a still life and completed a pastel painting of it. After each painting was done I ate the fruit. That was my routine. I kept my spirit up by choosing to believe that there was something mystical to Bonavito's regiment, like the mundane tasks given by a Zen master to his disciple. I continued with this practice right up until a few days before the fall semester started.
That's when I agreed to drive my girlfriend Lori, (now my wife), to her job in the city. After a summer of painting nothing but fruit, I decided to bring my easel, pad and pastels, with the intention that after I dropped her off I'd get out and do a street scene. Lori's office was on Twentieth and Park Ave South. When I dropped Lori off at the corner of Twentieth I noticed a group of senior citizens with their easels set up around the perimeter of Gramercy Park. They were painting street scenes with pastels, just like I intended to do. Seeing them out there gave me just the courage I needed: I parked the car.
“If they’re doing it so can I!” I thought.
I also figured that, even though they were much older, I’d blend in with them. That way if my painting turned out poorly I wouldn’t stand out as much as if I were alone. I’d be part of a group, even though I wasn’t. I got my easel, pad and supplies out of the car. I set up my easel on the west side of the park, picked an indigo blue pastel from the box of pastels and I made the first mark. Once the first mark on the paper was made the rest seemed to flow with ease - it was as if I was on autopilot! Intuitively, I continued with a little mark here, a sweep of line there, one stroke of pastel followed by another, and magically the street scene around me began to appear on the paper. The row of brownstone homes, the cars, the church in the distance, they were all materializing on the page before my eyes. It was as if I tapped unsuspected talent and ability I never realized that I had. I was aware of what I was doing, but had no idea how I was doing it. It was like in Robert Ludlum’s Bourne Identity when the character Jason Bourne discovers his unconscious ability to defend himself with the fighting skills of a trained Filipino Martial Artist against trained assassins. After I made my last mark on the paper I was astonished. I had completed a perfect New York City street scene.
“Holy crap! Mr. Bonavito was right!” I thought.
Right then an older fellow admiring my work asked, “Where do you teach?”
“Teach? I don’t teach.”
Still excited by my accomplishment, I continued by going right into the entire story about how I was an art student, who never drew a street scene until that day but always wanted to know how. That a teacher, Mr. Bonavito, told me to just paint fruit for the entire summer and it worked! When I was finished the man introduced himself as Sid Hermel, the instructor of all the folks that were around the park painting that day. After he told me that I thanked him. I let him know that if it weren’t for my seeing his class out there I would have never had the courage to do this pastel painting and I would have never discovered what I was capable of. Then it dawned on me. Bonavito’s just painting fruit reginment and the seniors with their easels made it clear: drawing a New York City street scene wasn’t about learning any step-by-step tricks or system: it’s about letting go of self-doubt. Drawing fruit didn’t seem as scary as what I perceived to be a complicated street scene but now I realize there is no difference. Whether it’s a bunch of fruit, a bunch of buildings or even the human form, they are all just composed of a series of simple lines and shapes. Mr. Bonavito's exercise allowed my critical mind to take a break. Previously, whenever I took out my pad, my critical mind would immediately panic and say, "Ought oh! What are we going to do now? This looks hard!"
But after a summer of just painting fruit my critical mind became less and less interested when I took out my pad. "Oh, it's just fruit." It would say bored. "That's easy. Have fun, I'm going to take a nap."
With my critical mind out of the way my conscious and subconscious mind could finally enjoy cooperating with each other - without the nagging negative criticism and unreasonable self-doubt.
we would literally astound ourselves.”
1918 - 1995
Sidney H. Hermel
1922 - 2006