Art as food for the soul

Art as food for the soul

Two Jewish artists from very different backgrounds collaborate in Montclair and the Jewish Art Salon

Artists Siona Benjamin and Yona Verwer collaborate on Montclair hotel commission
Artists Siona Benjamin and Yona Verwer collaborate on Montclair hotel commission

If you want to be literal, it’s really insider/outsider art.

Siona Benjamin and Yona Verwer have collaborated on art that hangs both inside the MC Montclair Hotel and outside it. (Okay, to be absolutely literal, Siona’s art hangs both inside and outside; Yona’s is outside only. But that’s to nitpick.)

Siona is an Indian Jew, and Yona is a Netherlands-born Jew by choice. They’re both painters; Yona is the founder and director of the Jewish Art Salon, and Siona is a founding member. They’re good friends, and their understanding of American Jews as both insiders and outsiders, and their own status as both inside and outside the community informs much of their art.

Each has a compelling story to tell — and then, there’s the hotel.

Siona Benjamin’s Rebecca, one of her blue-skinned women, merges styles and includes allegory, anger, and wit.

Siona Benjamin, who lives in Montclair, was born in Mumbai and grew up in one of its suburbs; her father, Judah, was born there too, and her mother, Sophie, is the daughter of a woman who was born in what is now Pakistan, along the border with Afghanistan. On both sides, Siona is part of the community called Bene Israel, which traces its roots in India back millennia; romantics call it one of the 10 lost tribes, but even sober realists acknowledge that its members are both entirely Jewish and have an indisputably long history in India. (It’s necessary to make such a statement because Indian Jews in America, as Siona can verify, often are faced with disbelief. How can they be Jewish if they don’t grow up eating matzah balls? It’s easy…)

The Indian Jewish community is small — “just about 30,000,” Siona said — and “we got along well. We lived mostly among the Muslim community in Mumbai, because we all believed in one God. We didn’t tend to live in the Hindu communities, because we weren’t idol worshippers.”

India is huge and full of many minority groups, Siona said. Jews didn’t face prejudice or bias. Still, after Israel was created in 1948, the community started to leave; most but not all went to Israel. “They didn’t leave because there was any persecution,” Siona said. “They left for economic reasons, and for the call of Zionism.”

In the 1970s, HIAS — that’s the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society — “placed Jews all over the world,” Siona said. That included her uncle, who was young and unmarried, and was offered a job in Cleveland, where he settled. More of her family, including her grandmother, followed.

“I used to visit my grandmother in Cleveland, and I used to think that I wanted to go to art school in America,” Siona said.

Yona Verwer’s multimedia “Book of Yonah 8,” a series created in collaboration with Katarzyna Kozera, tells the story of her immigration and conversion; it evokes Yona’s namesake, the prophet Jonah.

Long before she knew that she’d be an American, Siona knew that she’d be an artist. “When I was a little kid, from the very beginning, I loved to draw and sketch, and my mother was very sweet in encouraging it,” she said. “The best gift I could get was a box of paints, or of markers. My mother’s brother was in the merchant navy, and he’d bring back boxes of markers, pens, and paints from Japan, and I’d be thrilled.”

In high school, she trained for admission to the J.J. School of Art in Mumbai, and she got in; “it’s one of the best schools in India,” she said. She earned her undergraduate degree in painting, metals, and art history; soon afterward, “I decided to come to graduate school in America,” she said.

Where to go? That was easy. “I had met a professor from Southern Illinois University in Carbondale who was in India on a Fulbright,” she said. “He saw my portfolio, and he got me a full scholarship.” She felt even more comfortable in southern Illinois because she had an aunt who lived in Chicago.

Siona earned her first MFA in painting and another, in set design — a field that fascinated her — at the University of Illinois in Urbana–Champaign. Soon she married, moved back to Carbondale, and eventually she, her husband, and their daughter, Rachel, now 25, moved to Montclair, which she loves for its beauty, its diversity, and its position as a home for artists.

Yona Verwer and Siona Benjamin stand far below the mural they created together for the MC Montclair Hotel.

Unlike many artists, Siona supports herself with her art; she takes commissions, displays her work at exhibits around the world, gives talks at universities, and works both in and outside the Jewish world. She’s slated to be on a panel on art and activism at the Jewish Film Festival in Philadelphia — virtually, most likely — and had trips around the world before the pandemic struck.

Still, it is, unsurprisingly, in her art that Siona expresses herself most completely; when you look at it, you are struck by its sheer beauty, its color, its mixture of Persian, Indian, classic, Jewish, and comic–book elements that could be done only in America. It’s narrative art — there are stories in it. You can see pain and anger in it.

And what you can see clearly is its humor. Siona’s art manages to be beautiful, story-telling, and funny at the same time.

That’s because it’s more effective and less soul-deadening to deflect and teach with humor than it is to react with rage, Siona said. “When people have misconceptions about other cultures — when they ask me things like ‘How can there be Jews in India?’ — I could get angry at them. I could shake my fingers at them and put them off. But just because they ask me in a weird way, it’s still from ignorance.

“Sometimes people ask me nicely ‘Tell me more about your country. It’s so fascinating. But how is it possible that there are Jews in India?’ And I say, ‘The Jews first came from around Iran and Iraq. The Fertile Crescent. They didn’t come from Germany or Poland.

Siona works on one painting in her series “Montclair Shangri-La.”

“There are Jews all around the world, and they are all different. I didn’t grow up with gefilte fish. I grew up with curries and halvah. But instead of being annoyed at people for what they don’t know, I try to create with humor.”

Many of Siona’s pieces include a “blue-skinned character, who became a symbol of being a Jewish woman of color,” she said. “That symbolizes otherness. This character is humorous and playful, like a character in a book.”

It was when she realized something that had been true for a long time — “I am a visual storyteller,” she said — that Siona’s “life became easier.

“I recycle mythology,” she said. “I read Joseph Campbell’s ‘The Power of Myth’; I study midrash.

Another section of Siona’s “Exodus,” this panel is called “I see myself in you.”

“I am drawn to the characters of the women in Torah and midrash. Instead of drawing them in their place and time, I use their stories as a jumping board to transform those stories and connect to them.

“Lilith became a woman who is wronged in a war or some kind of violence against her, so she cries out in anger. Rebecca is not just standing by a well, but wearing an America flag sari.”

Yona Verwer, who lives in downtown Manhattan, was born and grew up in Rijswijk, a suburb of the Hague. She was a reader in a family of non-readers, a lapsed Catholic in a family of devout Catholics, and an artist for nearly as long as she can remember. Her father, Paul, had “a service station for cars,” she said. “He didn’t really have to work at it. When he was single, the business was fledgling; and then my mother, Maria, turned it into a very successful business.” Yona had a comfortable childhood.

“There were no Jews in my town,” she said. “I never met a Jewish person until I was in my 20s.” But she read a book that included a description of a girl lighting a chanukiah, “and I knew that I wanted to be Jewish,” she said.

That wasn’t a likely future for her, Yona realized, so she let that fantasy go. But it resurfaced occasionally. “The only explanation that makes sense to me was something I read from the Lubavitcher rebbe,” Yona said. “He said that if a person has such a strong desire to be Jewish, it means that the person’s neshama” — the soul — “was Jewish. The conversion process is necessary, but it is a formality. It’s just to seal it.”

In “The Book of Yona 4,” Yona is in front of a painting collaboration with Katarzyna Kozera. Here, the prophet Jonah is in a submarine in New York’s East River.

Meanwhile, “I knew that I wanted to be an artist ever since I was 10,” she said. “But it was not a profession that my parents would like, so I put it aside.” After high school, “I applied and was accepted to a program in psychology in Amsterdam.

“But my father had died the year before, and my mother had early onset Alzheimers, and I realized that I didn’t have to do that anymore. So I nixed it, and applied to the academy.” That was the Royal Academy of Art in the Hague. She got in.

After art school, Yona and a friend moved to New York. “One of the reasons was the constant grayness,” she said. “I wanted to live somewhere warmer.” She’d had double pneumonia when she was six months old, she said; it was important to her to live somewhere that was warm and dry. She considered Barbados, or Italy — but instead, in 1978, moved to the not-always-warm-and-dry New York, where she’s lived ever since.

Yona had an eclectic, downtown-y career; she studied at the Art Student League and worked as a bartender in a number of boundary-stretching clubs. She met lots of artists, she developed her own art — she has her own firm — and she met lots of Jews.

This is from Siona Benjamin’s work in progress, Exodus; this part of the triptych, Amisted, is named after the infamous slave ship.

Eventually, she realized that this Jewish thing of hers was not going away. It was getting more and more important. She started taking conversion classes, first at the 92nd Street Y and then at a local shul. She had two conversions, first Conservative, then Orthodox. She started living an increasingly observant life. That’s the life she lives today.

Yona’s Jewish life increasingly affected her art. The content of her art became increasingly — although not exclusively — Jewish; her strong feminist feelings and history as an immigrant and a European born in a place where many Jews had been persecuted and murdered affected her work as well. She’s been influenced by kabbalah, spirituality, mysticism, and midrash; she works in multimedia; she’s had shows around the world.

“I realized that I didn’t have anyone to talk about Jewish art with,” she said; she had many friends who were artists and could talk about art in general, but not that part of it. “I had friends who I would go to galleries with, and we’d talk about our non-Jewish work. That was a precursor to the Jewish Art Salon.

“I realized that I didn’t know who makes Jewish art, so I came up with a few names, and said, ‘Let’s get together.’

“I thought that it would be a lower Manhattan kind of thing, that we’d go to galleries together, but then, from Day One, at the first meeting, all of a sudden it wasn’t just artists but the curator of the museum at Hebrew Union College, and an art historian — I realized right away that this was something a little different than I had imagined.”

Siona works on her blue-skinned Lilith/Kali/Medusa, who evokes both the midrash we know and the midrash the artist adds.

Soon, the salon was curating exhibits; by now, it has 450 members from around the world, and has exhibited widely. It’s both exhilarating and time-consuming to run it; Yona still is the director, but “instead of running it like an artist — not really knowing what I am doing — now I delegate a lot,” she said ruefully.

Yona has made a lot of friendships through the Jewish Art Salon; one of them is with Siona Benjamin.

That’s how she got to the MC Hotel Montclair.

The hotel owners decided that they wanted their hotel filled with real art by local artists; the designer, David Ashton, commissioned Siona to create a painting for each of the seven elevator lobbies on the hotel’s bedroom floors. The inspiration had to be something in Montclair; “I live between two parks, Edgemont and Anderson, and I have a friend who is a local historian, so I learned about them,” she said. The art, as requested, is in “Persian Indian miniature style,” she said. That series is called “Montclair Shangri-La.”

Another of Siona’s Liliths is in a work called “Finding Home.”

That was a few years ago. About a year later, “they asked me to do some exterior murals, and I said sure,” Siona said, but she decided that she’d rather collaborate with another artist than work alone on a project of that size. Yona came immediately to mind. “She’s a friend and an amazing artist and I love working with her,” Siona said. So when “David, who’s also a friend of Yona’s, suggested Yona, I said, ‘Of course! Definitely.’”

Part of the project is a mural that goes on a rotunda. “It’s really really high,” Siona said. It’s a sky with birds, with a border around it.

“The wonders of modern technology are such that you can create a 24-inch circular painting and get it blown up to 18 feet,” Yona said. It’s made of a material called Dibond; as Google explains, Dibond is “two sheets of .012’ thick aluminum with a solid polyethylene core sandwiched between the two sheets. Because of its composite structure, Dibond is both thicker and lighter than aluminum at approximately one half the weight of straight aluminum.”

We all see it all the time — it’s the material that road signs are made of.

“We found it because we both do a lot of commercial work as well as painting, so we both always are looking for materials,” Yona said. “If you can’t paint the actual ceiling, then what is the next best method of doing it?”

Another migrant woman struggles in colorful desolate beauty in another part of her “Exodus.”

At first, the two women assumed that they’d paint right on the ceiling; they found out how much it would cost to rent the cherry-pickers they’d need. It would have cost a lot. They reconsidered their options.

“I have translated my work into canvas and wallpaper and ceramic tiles, so I looked into it, and contacted different manufacturers,” Yona said. “I landed on these sign- and road sign-makers, and I talked to them.

“I asked them if we could print Technicolor on this material — if it could only be the green of road signs, or if it had to be monochromatic — and they said we could.” And they did.

The mural was printed in Clifton, Siona said. Back just before the pandemic, she went to the factory. “There was a giant machine that printed out a panel millimeter by millimeter, pixel by pixel,” she said. “It took two full days to print it out.”

Yona Verwer and Katarzyna Kozera’s Urim and Tumin, part of a multimedia series, shows the breastplates that would give the Israelite High Priest prophetic messages.

Siona also has two paintings outside the hotel, called “Sunrise” and “Sunset.”

Why did the hotel’s owner spend money on art? “Because this is an art hotel,” Siona said. What does that mean? “Art is not a luxury,” she said. “Art is a necessity. It is food for the soul.”

That’s easy to say, of course, but when you look at the art, you realize that real people pay real money because the joy and sense of connectedness and soul-filling that they get from it nourishes them.

Siona Benjamin and Yona Verwer both manage to take that soul-food and make it Jewish.

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