By Margie Smith Holt
Time was if a man asked a woman to come up and see his etchings, he might (rightly) be regarded with suspicion. But if that proposition is coming from Bernard Zalon, rest assured it’s entirely legit.
Born in Brooklyn and now living in Washington Heights, the 71-year-old artist has made the Upper West Side the home of his outdoor gallery since the ’90s, some 30 years. You’ve probably seen him, or at least walked past his etchings of UWS scenes, on the corner of 80th and Broadway, right in front of the Verizon Store, better known locally as where the original H&H Bagels used to be.
“I’ve been selling my work on the street full time since 1975,” Zalon said on a recent sunny Saturday afternoon in front of his display. “I worked for an architect for three years. And then I quit to sell pictures on the street.”
Zalon started out with pen-and-ink drawings but wanted to get into “a more respected medium.”
“I had taken a class in etching at the Brooklyn Museum art school a long time ago, like ’74, but I didn’t really get into it then,” he explained.
He thought he’d try his hand at lithography with a class at the Art Students League on West 57th. “They showed me lithographs. But I didn’t like the way they look. And the etching class was right across the hall.”
Zalon has been etching ever since, taking much of his inspiration from the UWS, a place he calls “the real New York,” the New York of old black-and-white movies.
Many of his pieces feature humorous or whimsical touches. A line of flying MTA buses in front of the Apthorp, for example. Zalon floated the first bus in order to obscure the building’s difficult-to-sketch curved windows, then decided he liked the idea.
Another etching, entitled “Self Portrait” features a once-hazardous section of sidewalk.
“Before they fixed the sidewalk, people were always tripping and falling in front of my pictures. So that’s how I got the idea to do this. That’s me,” he said, pointing to an artist’s hand sketching a woman splayed face down on the cracked pavement. “I’m drawing the future!”
What exactly is an etching?
Zalon starts with a copper plate, covered with an acid-resistant ground, like wax.
“I’ll take an etching needle and I’ll draw a line through the wax, thereby exposing the metal,” he explained. “And then I’ll put the plate into an acid bath and the acid will bite a groove into the exposed copper. The longer it’s in the acid, the deeper the bite. Then I take it out and I clean it off and I wipe ink onto the plate.”
The plate gets wiped clean, but the ink stays in the grooves. Once the copper plate is inked, it gets cranked through a press with damp paper on top and voila! An etching.
(You can see a demonstration of the process on The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s website.)
“Each one is an original,” Zalon adds, “because there’s no one original.”
Zalon has been honing his craft for more than 40 years. He has exhibited at art fairs across the country and around New York City—in front of museums, outside Lincoln Center, down in the meatpacking district—but he says nothing beats his corner at 80th and Broadway.
“I like this spot,” he said. “I always liked the Upper West Side. Upper West Siders are liberal, intellectual, blah, blah, blah. And they like my work. And they buy it!”
Original etchings start at about $90 and go up to several hundred dollars. You can see more of Zalon’s work on his website, bernardzalon.com.
Or better yet, check out his etchings in person on the next nice day. Zalon promises to let you browse in peace. He doesn’t like to scare anybody off.
“I don’t really initiate you know?” he said. “Usually as soon as I move a muscle they scatter like pigeons!
“If I see somebody has been looking for a while, I’ll go over and say ‘Hi. How are you? Do you need any help? Let me know.’ I don’t like to bother people.”