Building for beauty

Building for beauty

Artist’s work ‘honors donors, inspires future donations’

From left, Bonnie Cohen helps Adler Aphasia Center members Javed Ispahany of Tenafly and Dolores Donatello of Paramus create a mosaic flower as volunteer Nola Sher of Pompton Lakes looks on. (Jennifer Brown)
From left, Bonnie Cohen helps Adler Aphasia Center members Javed Ispahany of Tenafly and Dolores Donatello of Paramus create a mosaic flower as volunteer Nola Sher of Pompton Lakes looks on. (Jennifer Brown)

Artist/designer Bonnie Cohen loves her work.

“I’m grateful every day that I wake up and have something wonderful to look forward to,” said Ms. Cohen, whose work is displayed in synagogues and Jewish institutions throughout the country and in Israel.

“My commitment to Judaism has grown with my artwork,” she said. “They grew in tandem with each other.”

Ms. Cohen, whose studio is in Bath, Ohio, started her “Jewish study journey” in 1996, when her younger son became a bar mitzvah. Now, she reads Torah and is one of three women trained to lead the morning minyan at her shul, Beth El Synagogue in Akron.

While much of her work has been Jewishly themed — her artwork was exhibited at the Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership in Chicago, and more locally, she has created works for Temple Rishon in Wyckoff and Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood — Ms. Cohen also has done work to enhance public spaces and health care facilities.

Most recently, she worked as artist-in-residence at the Adler Aphasia Center in Maywood. “I was so touched, so inspired not only by the members but by the staff and volunteers,” she said about that experience. “I spoke to the board and about 70 members and their families.”

Ms. Cohen spent two days at Adler, training volunteers and guiding them to produce 8-inch mosaic flowers at a workshop on March 23. “There were almost 80 people at the workshop,” she said. “It was beyond my expectations. Everybody was really pleased, and I was the happiest of all. I had chosen the palette, tiles, shapes and patterns, but every [flower] had a personality. The members were so excited.”

When the artwork is unveiled in June, the center will have a 12 foot by 6 foot donor recognition wall in its lobby. Its theme, “A journey of 1,000 miles begins with one single step,” will be reflected in a curved pathway through a garden.

A flower mosaic. (jennifer Brown)
A flower mosaic. (jennifer Brown)

An award-winning designer who specializes in large-scale mosaic art and artist-in-residence projects, Ms. Cohen has worked to reinvent the concept of donor recognition by incorporating fine art mosaics into her designs. One of her goals, she said, is to create “a stunning and vibrant architectural statement that will inspire donations for successful capital campaigns.”

Fine art, she said, honors the generosity of donors in a special way. The participants who are trained to help build the mosaic “are taking part in hiddur mitzvah” — beautifying the mitzvah — “are honoring the donors in a beautiful way.” Not only does the artwork acknowledge donors’ generosity, “but the mitzvah becomes elevated, inspiring future donations” by others who will walk into lobbies, sanctuaries, or multipurpose rooms.

While Ms. Cohen, 62, has lived in Bath all her life, except for the years she spent working toward her design degree at Carnegie Mellon, today she travels a lot, sharing her art with people throughout the country. But before that, for the first 15 years after graduation, she worked for companies such as Sherwin Williams, channeling her design expertise into package design, product design, and corporate identity projects “with a lot of signage and typography.”

Twenty years ago, she left that business and started painting pottery. “I ended up winning awards and going back to school for two more years to learn about ceramics.” Now, she has “two kilns and a big studio.”

“The turning point came when someone in Reston, Va., said they wanted to do a project for their son’s bar mitzvah and donate it to the synagogue,” Ms. Cohen recalled. The callers, the Hirsch family, had seen her website,, featuring her Judaica projects.

“I had never done a large undertaking like that,” she said, adding that at the time, she also was learning to lead services and engaging more deeply in Jewish studies.

She met with Ms. Hirsch, a member of the Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation, “and it just clicked,” she said. “I studied her son’s Torah portion and came up with sketches and concepts.” She then arranged to serve as artist-in-residence at the synagogue to work with the bar mitzvah boy’s class on the project. In addition, she spoke at Friday night services, “learning that I could tell stories and actually teach.”

A second contact was equally important. After she posted the project she did in Virginia on her website, “Kathy Davis found me online. She’s vice-president of the Welch Company and an expert in donor recognition and fundraising campaigns. She asked if I would consider doing a project with her.” That relationship took off — Ms. Cohen and Ms. Davis have been working together ever since.

“She coordinates every aspect of the project,” Ms. Cohen said. “She’s the reason I have great opportunities to create artwork for wonderful organizations like Adler all over the country. I’ve been doing this for 20 years,” she said.

Bonnie Cohen created the art that is part of the donation wall at Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood (Courtesy Bonnie Cohen)
Bonnie Cohen created the art that is part of the donation wall at Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood (Courtesy Bonnie Cohen)

Ms. Cohen’s husband, Randy, is also her business manager. The couple have two married sons, Michael and Adam. As for the number of projects she and Ms. David have done, “I’ve stopped counting.”

Ms. Cohen said her father, a super-practical CPA, was the first person to steer her beyond just painting and drawing. “He said I needed to have a career to support myself with,” she said. The career she developed “is wonderful. I had corporate, typographical, and technical experience,” blending well with Ms. Davis’s area of expertise.

“I like making connections with people and I love hearing their stories,” she said, noting that wherever she works, she discusses the upcoming project with everyone involved. She recently completed a state-funded project at Ohio’s Belmont College under the auspices of Percent for Art.

Called Steps for Success, as Ms. Cohen wrote on its website, “three intertwined circles represent lifespan care and the ‘caring hands’ represent the importance of balancing human interaction with technical excellence…The Belmont logo and the college name, integrated into the mosaic artwork, reinforces the inspiration and energy of students and faculty who strive to improve and enhance the lives of others.”

In choosing her themes, “I meet with staff, volunteers, committees, college professors, etc., trying to get a feel for the organization and translating that into something meaningful to the organization.”

Among her most cherished projects is the one created for Temple Rishon. Asked to beautify the entryway to its new education wing, “The design challenge was to create a design that would be interesting and fun for the students and still honor the incredible generosity of the donors in an elegant way,” Ms. Cohen said. Beginning with the quote , ‘As my parents planted for me , so do I plant for my children,’ I created a sculptural, dimensional tree design and the Welch Architectural Signage company figured out how to beautifully detail the framing and tree trunk that frames my mosaic art.”

Another favorite is the ark wall fashioned for her synagogue in Akron, using an all-white palette. “It’s one of my best works,” she said. “There’s not a time I go to services, and I go every week, when congregants don’t come up and say, ‘I just love that wall.’ There’s something very special about the lighting in the room. It sparkles and glows with feeling.”

A detail from the  donation wall at Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood (Courtesy Bonnie Cohen)
A detail from the donation wall at Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood (Courtesy Bonnie Cohen)

Her next project, at Beth El Congregation in Yardley, Pa., will focus on the phrase “pillar of cloud.” Most times, she said, “people want to use the quote from Exodus, about building the mishkan, ‘Take from among you an offering to the Lord, whoever has a generous heart, let bring the Lord’s offering.’ But I try to find something else, something new to focus on. A guest rabbi recently talked about the pillar of cloud. That works for me.”

Then, of course, there was her project for the Jewish Agency for Israel, where she worked as an artist-in-residence in Akron and then flew to Israel with the mosaics, where she worked with an artist and teachers there.

“This was a collaborative project designed for an artist-in-residency program sponsored by the Jewish Agency for Israel,” she said. “The mural involved workshops with students at the Jewish Day School and Hebrew High School in Akron. I designed the concept for the mural called Planting for Peace, incorporating mosaic panels from Israeli and American students.” The mural was installed on an exterior wall of the Community Center of Acco.

Ms. Cohen remembered happily that while her fellow artists couldn’t speak English, “we sang Beatles songs together.”

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