Santa Rosa artist wins fans with joyous Jewish imagery
The Press Democrat
April 19, 2019
Photo courtesy Christopher Chung
For Nina Bonos (B.A. Arch '74), art is an expression of her faith, and more specifically, a celebration of her faith. Raised in Daly City, Bonos has been attending synagogue since she was a child.
Now residing in Santa Rosa, Bonos utilizes a combination of watercolors and mixed media collages to honor her Jewish heritage.
“My mother’s family left Berlin in 1936. That colored her life and it’s colored my life too,” said the artist.
“Having a mother who survived Nazi Germany and a father whose family was from Poland and who grew up in Dallas, Texas, I was always aware of anti-Semitism, even though as a child growing up in Daly City and going to synagogue in San Francisco, I personally didn’t experience much of it.”
With a degree in architecture from UC Berkeley, Bonos had a long career in city planning, historical preservation, map-making, and real estate before she fully embraced what would become her life’s passion.
Before UC Berkeley, Bonos studied environmental planning at UC Davis, inspired by her father and her own artistic interests she had pursued since her youth.
“He did plan checking for the city of Daly City, where we lived. We would go to buildings he had plan checked and we would critique them. This how I developed my eye,” she explained. After college, Bonos would go on to serve as the city planner for Novato, a staff member for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and the planner for Sonoma County, where she became a specialist in historic preservation.
Trip to Israel
Years later, after a trip to Israel, Bonos immersed herself in her work as a professional. Bonos’ career took off as she began to develop custom Torah mantles featured all over North America.
She designed a pair of Torah mantles for her own congregation which included the blue ribbons and 613 pomegranate seeds, the former, a tribute to the color of the Israeli flag, and the latter, the number of commandments in the Torah.
A recurring theme of her work and something she practices in her life is Tikkun Olam, a Reform Jewish teaching which stresses the importance of healing the environment.
She sees her work as an artist, and as a member of Santa Rosa’s Art in Public Places Committee, as her own contribution to Tikkun Olam.
Much of Bonos’ work lives in the details of her picturesque Sonoma Wine Country backgrounds. Bonos includes imagery such as olives, pomegranates, and the Tree of Life — all notable tokens of the Jewish religion. Bonos has transformed the Star of David into a triangular shape with a red camellia in the center or concealed in a leaf. Other traditional symbols such as the Passover seder plate or kiddush cup appear subtly in her works as well.
Across the nation, collectors and congregations seek out her work, whether greeting cards for fundraising, Torah mantles for synagogues, or paintings, which comprise her “Joyous Judaica” collection. In rich, jewel-tone colors her work celebrates Jewish holidays and life cycle events, Torah, Tikkun Olam, Israel, the Aleph Bet, and Jewish Music.
Despite the tragic history of Jewish people, Bonos infuses her art with positivity and celebration.
“I paint what I feel, which can be pure joy,” she said, “or sometimes it is joy triumphing over pain.”
Her world is fertile with sunshine, abundance, and as the Torah described Israel, “A land of wheat, and barley, and vines, and fig trees, and pomegranates; a land of olive oil and honey.” And all of that along with California Wine Country grapevines, of course.
Also known as the “Seven Sacred Species”, these foods are not only native to Bonos’ Santa Rosa home, but these staple crops also carry deep metaphorical meaning in Jewish culture.
Bonos’ lighter approach is also noted in a piece dedicated to the passing of her mother in the early ‘90s. It is a metaphor for Bonos — the roots under underground, but the strong trunk and branches reaching upward.
At the time when Bonos received news of her mother’s passing, Bonos was at a live painting demonstration in Santa Rosa. In a flurry, Bonos transformed a large, raku urn that caught her eye into a brightly-colored ghostly figure with arms raised, almost entering the heavens.
“I wanted to make a painting to really commemorate her life,” the artist said.
Bonos acknowledges that while her art brings joy, it has therapeutic value for her as well.
“Everybody sees this as really happy and right. But it’s really solving a problem for me.”
Bonos applies this same ideology to her faith and her approach to life. Although the Jewish people have been historically persecuted, Bonos views their sufferings as proof of their ultimate strength, resilience, intelligence, and resourcefulness.
“To know the depths of sorrow, as an individual, family, and as a people, develops our ability to feel positive emotions as well.
“When I am happy, I create beauty to express my happiness. When I am unhappy, I create beauty to transform my sorrow to joy. It’s a very useful skill.”