When Wilson Reimers began work on the 36-foot-long, 9-foot-high mural that fills the hallways of the Temple Sinai of Bergen County Early Childhood Center, he made a lot of new young friends.
"The children became his buddies," said Judy Fox, associate director of the center, noting that, particularly for the 4-year-olds, "the painting and progression of the mural was an enriching and edifying experience."
Describing the creation of the piece, Fox said that Reimers usually painted in the morning and was "perched on his stool, paintbrush in hand," when the children walked by, some of them calling out, "Hi, Wilson. What are you painting today?"
Artist Wilson Reimers explains the images in his biblical mural.
In fact, he was painting ‘5 vignettes from the Torah, depicted on an unfurled Torah scroll. The work, which took two months to complete, was dedicated to the memory of Lynn and Lizzie Koch, shul members who were killed in a ‘005 car accident.
"When he was working on it, I could see the excitement as groups of children and their parents paused and chatted with him," said Rabbi Bruce Block, religious leader of the Tenafly congregation. "Watching it come to life, I told Wilson that it was accessible to the children. He said that’s exactly what he wanted it to be."
"It’s a living thing," said Fox. "It provides parents and teachers with an opportunity to tell stories and relate Jewish themes."
Reimers a Closter resident and retired textile designer had painted murals before, one for Closter Borough Hall and another for a church in Tenafly. But the artist explained that, inasmuch as he is not Jewish, the project was a "learning experience" for him. He found out, for example, that he was not permitted by Jewish law to draw angels ascending or descending Jacob’s ladder, "so I painted them out. But I could paint a picture of the ark because that is described in the text in such detail."
Working with a synagogue committee chaired by member Michele Harris, "we kicked around some ideas" and conceived of a "huge, unfurling Torah amid sky and clouds," he said, noting that the simulated Hebrew text runs throughout the unfurled scroll.
Reimers said the vignettes "are drawn from stories the children are likely to know," such as the Creation story, the Garden of Eden, and the 10 plagues. "Some of the children were absolutely fascinated," he said. "They wanted to shake my hand. They were really impressed."
While he was working on the section about Abraham and Isaac, he recalled, a child came by and asked about it. "I tried to give him an explanation that was not too violent," he said. "I told him it was Abraham’s big test." Apparently, however, the child was waiting to see him paint a knife, telling the artist that "Abraham was going to kill his son."
"The parents don’t always know the stories, but the children do," said Reimers, "especially the older children."
He also explained that while he had not originally intended to paint cows, one child came by repeatedly and told him how much he liked cows. So the artist added the story of Pharaoh’s dream, which speaks of seven cows.
Reimers said he was gratified by the reaction of the Koch family, who commissioned the memorial. "They were very moved," agreed Block, recalling that Lizzie, a senior in high school at the time of her death, was an alumna of the early childhood center, while her mother was an active member of the parent community and served on the synagogue board. "It was bittersweet," he said. "It helps their memory live on."
"The family has chosen to honor their lives by dedicating the mural," said Fox, calling it the "ECC Wall of Scholars." She explained that families will have an opportunity to commemorate their children’s years at the center by buying plaques that will be affixed to the mural. According to Harris, all donations will be applied toward educational initiatives at the school.
"The almost daily interaction with a real artist creating a real painting before their eyes" was invaluable, said Fox, calling the mural "a presence in the school. But of equal importance is the continuous daily exposure to wall art that is replete with references to our Jewish heritage, which will continue to infuse the daily lives of our students for years to come."