I Want to Be Like Hank
Hank Virgona died last month. I learned about it this week, when I read his obituary in the New York Times. Hank was a masterful painter, and the obituary described the museums that display his work, the awards he received, and a wonderful documentary film on his life.
I met Hank through his best friend, Geppy Vaccaro, whose studio created art for the Disney book projects I handled. The two friends had grown up together in Brooklyn and had studied at Pratt Institute, where Geppy pursued commercial art and Hank focused on fine art, emerging every bit as dedicated as a monk, which in fact he had started out to be.
My wife Yvonne and I met Hank on a trip to New York, when we visited his studio at 41 Union Square, a building occupied almost entirely by artists, where Hank continued to work right up to the end of his life.
Entering the studio was like walking into Hank's brain. It was full of brushes, paints, and a lifetime of sketches. We purchased some paintings and returned several times, buying more each trip.
Sadly, we lost touch with Hank over the years, but he continues to live in our house through his art. When you sit in our living room, you’re surrounded by his work: four paintings of matchboxes, two watering cans, an eggplant, a window in his studio, three nudes, and the face of a young man.
Across the room is a watercolor of several small peaches, which Hank gave us on the birth of our daughter, Maggie. We collected twenty years of Hank’s highly prized holiday cards, which he meticulously hand-decorated. Hanging over the desk in my office, presented in appreciation of my writing, is a stubby pencil—essence of pencil, the most pencil pencil you will ever see.
That’s what Hank did. He studied people and objects, sought their essence, and tried to capture it on paper. For most of his life he did paintings of subway passengers, several of which are on display at the New York Transit Museum. We don’t see every detail of their faces, and their bodies may only be blobs of color, but we feel their energy, their fatigue, their dignity and heart.
For a while it was paper bags. He drew bag after bag—dozens, maybe hundreds—in his struggle to show bagness. When I asked how long he would continue to paint them, he said, “Until I get it right.”
I want to be like Hank, in my work and in my life.
A Play About Hank
A few years ago, I decided to do for Hank what he had done for those paper bags. I tried to get him right, in a play that I called “Still Life.”
The play is about two old friends named Joe and Connie, one a commercial artist and the other a fine artist, who meet up after years of traveling different directions in their careers. During the visit, they decide to paint together.
CONNIE: All right. So, what are we going to paint?
JOE: How about some fruit?
CONNIE: It’s been done.
CONNIE: I’m allergic. Wait, here’s something.
JOE: A wrinkled-up paper bag? It’s not much.
CONNIE: Not much? Look at it. It’s got good brown paper. Rough, not smooth. If you study it, you can see little fiber things, almost like hairs. It’s got sides. It’s got a bottom that’s reinforced, to hold things. And look at the top edge here. See that? It’s crinkly. Why don’t they cut it off straight? I’ve always wondered about that. There’s a printed mark of some kind. This one’s red. Plus, you got all these wrinkles. This bag has seen things. It’s been around.
JOE: You know more about that bag than I know about most people.
CONNIE: I don’t know anything. That’s why I paint. To understand.