Inspired by nature: Denis Benjamin’s Images
Dr. Denis Benjamin’s professional focus, curiosity and enthusiasm have propelled him on a journey of discovery, learning and appreciation for nature’s beauty, bounty and benefits.
Whether painting landscapes, flowers and animals of his native South Africa, or following his fascination with the complex world of mushrooms, the retired physician and Beth-El member now seems equally at home in the role of both student and teacher.
Specifically, his work as a doctor and pathologist and his scientific knowledge of mushrooms led him to become an amateur mycologist: hunting, observing, studying, gathering and writing about wild mushrooms.
Trained as a physician in his native Johannesburg, South Africa, Benjamin immigrated in 1970 to the Pacific Northwest, where he completed his residency in pathology at the University of Washington in Seattle. He practiced pediatric pathology at children’s hospitals in both Seattle and Fort Worth.
His travels and mushroom foraging expeditions have served as inspiration for his paintings. Reflecting on his many decades of studying and learning about mushrooms in comparison to less than 10 years of painting, Benjamin finds truth in what a mentor told him: “Life is planned serendipity, and the planning doesn’t matter.”
The artist had never before picked up a paint brush when he joined his wife for a watercolor class at the age of 69. By chance, the instructor in the class was renowned Russian botanical artist Alexander “Sasha” Viazmensky. A course at the Gage Academy of Art in Seattle followed, but Benjamin credits instruction from Viazmensky as his true inspiration.
When Benjamin asked his instructor to characterize his abilities, Viazmensky told him there are two kinds of artists: “Artists with talent and artists with courage.” When told he had courage, Benjamin admired the observation, acknowledging that he didn’t have natural ability but he was willing to work very hard and put himself out there.
Among his activities are serving as a research associate for the Botanical Research Institute of Texas (BRIT) and founding the Botanical Art Collective of North Central Texas in 2017.
The mushrooms and the art have combined to lead Benjamin to authorship as well. Following his first book, “Mushrooms: Poisons and Panaceas,” viewed as a landmark book on the health effects of mushrooms, “Musings of a Mushroom Hunter: A Natural History of Foraging” has been praised for its distillation of 40 years of Benjamin’s insights, observations and anecdotes on foraging for wild mushrooms.
He is also the author of “The Compleat Physician: Reflections from a Golden Era of Clinical Medicine,” an autobiography featuring his medical education in South Africa and the United States and his career as a pediatric pathologist. This book is the featured selection to be discussed by Beth-El’s “People of the Book” reading group in May.
An exhibit of Benjamin’s work, mushrooms and otherwise, will be on display in the Temple boardroom from February through May. Displayed art will be on sale during the course of the exhibition.
— Submitted by
Matt Nover installed as assistant rabbi at NJ synagogue
Mazel Tov to Rabbi Matthew Nover, who has been installed as asistant rabbi and education director of Beth El Synagogue in East Windsor, New Jersey. He is the son of Maureen Givant Nover and Mark Nover, and the grandson of Shirley Givant and Earl Givant z”l. Rabbi Nover was ordained as a rabbi in May 2019 by the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City. He earned his B.A. in Jewish Studies from Rutgers University and graduate degrees in Hebrew Bible and Jewish education from JTS. Matt was born in Fort Worth, where he attended religious school at Congregation Ahavath Sholom and is a graduate of Fort Worth Country Day School. He spent summers at Camp Young Judea in Wimberley, Texas, and attended Nativ, the Conservative Movement Gap Year program in Israel. Matt and his wife Heather, branch director for METNY/Haglil Region USY, reside in East Windsor, New Jersey, with their 3-year-old daughter Jane.