Mural embraces multi-dimensional view of health

Bonnie Cohen


BG Independent News

Artist Bonnie Cohen makes her living helping institutions celebrate.

In synagogues, nursing homes, Jewish Community Centers, and schools all along the East Coast, her murals celebrate donors who funded those institutions and their missions. Those murals, she said, are not just generic listings of names, but reflect the good work that happens within those buildings.

That’s the spirit with which the Akron artist took on a mural now in place in the lobby of the College of Health and Human Services at Bowling Green State University.

Wednesday she and a crew of six were on campus to install the mural, which was funded through the Ohio Arts Council’s Percent for Art Program. That program allocates 1-percent for purchasing public art for any new building or renovation of $4 million or more funded by the state.

Crew works installing mural in College of health and Human Services.

The university wanted something that was abstract, but invoked the seven dimensions of wellness.

What she has created is a mural made from sundry tiles, ceramic, recycled glass, marble, about 25 different types in all. It wraps around the wall across from a south facing window, so those tiles will catch the light and change with it.

Two darkly shaded arms wrap around the wall. These represent the darkness those in need of help find themselves. The mural grows lighter in color as it moves to the center, a large circle with two hands along the edges.

The circles evoke an all-embracing community and the variety of tiles, the diversity of those who make up that community.

This, Cohen said, reflects what she was told by those on the 12-person panel that selected her work. “I have the feeling they really want their students to be aware of that the health issues, but also the total person and bringing them into wellness.”

Cohen said the mural was influenced by a residency she had at a New Jersey center for those suffering from aphasia, difficulty in speaking because of brain injury, usually stroke. Her mother, who suffers from dementia, suffers from aphasia.

Cohen said she worked with 70 patients at the center to create a mural. One story in particularly touched her.

A man had lost his ability to speak because of a stroke. “At all his family gatherings, at parties, and dinner he felt like he was at the outer edges,” she said. “When he walked into this aphasia center, he felt like he belonged somewhere.”

He joined the circle of community.

Cohen has also include quotations from Albert Einstein, Mother Theresa and others related to the seven dimensions of wellness – physical, emotional, intellectual, social, spiritual, cultural, and occupational.

“It is not how much you do, but how much love you put into the doing that matters,” reads the quotation from Mother Theresa.

This mural is the newest addition to a campus full of public art. That includes most prominently the Donald Drumm murals on Jerome Library.

Cohen has known Drumm since she was a child. Both are from Akron, and Cohen’s father, who was an accountant, did Drumm’s books. “He traded services for sculpture,” she said of her father.

Drumm did a fireplace for Cohen, and her husband, Randy, who works with her. Her husband handles the business end of her work, and he was also on hand at BGSU assisting with the installation.

She worked with many of his students from the Akron Art Museum School in her early work life during design and corporate brand development for an agency.

Cohen attended Carnegie Mellon, and her father suggested if she was interested in art she study design. He didn’t want her to end up being a “starving artist.”

After 15 years working with such clients as Sherwin-Williams and Smucker’s, she started exploring ceramics.

She didn’t like the results, she said. “I’m a perfectionist. … I really needed to learn the technical aspects.” So at 40, she arranged to get a studio at the University of Akron and audit courses.

Her rabbi’s wife approached her with an idea. Her sister was having a fashion show, she said, and she wondered if Cohen could create Judaica items – Seder platters, Shabbat plates, menorahs – for the event.  The items sold very well. She created a website to promote the work.

A mother from Reston, Virginia, reached out to her after seeing the site and wondered if Cohen would be an artist in residence at a synagogue and create a work of art that the family could donate in honor of their son’s bar mitzvah. She posted that project on her website and that led to her being contacted by Welch Sign in Portland, Maine. She works through them creating large donor recognition murals.

Bonnie Cohen checks mural detail

Her grounding in design and branding helps. “That’s the basis for what I do today. … I’m able to talk to the clients. They want something personal, unique … something that represents the institution.”

Adding those murals to her portfolio opened up doing the work through the Percent for Art Program.

BGSU is her third Percent for Art project, and she has another commission for Central State.

To secure the commission, an artist must apply. Three finalists are brought onsite for a “hard-hat” tour and then have six weeks to work up a concept.

That concept is reviewed by a 12-member panel. At BGSU that included people from the college as well as the School of Art and Robert Waddle, assistant vice president for capital planning.

“I was very impressed how thoughtful, and really interested and excited they were about this piece,” she said.

The panel decided unanimously on Cohen’s design. A rarity an arts council official told her.

Students will get to weigh in when they arrive back on campus in January.