Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Sonja Eisenberg - from Penniless to Penthouse

As the elevator opened into Sonia Eisenberg's Penthouse, the sun filtered into her white apartment.  Brighter was her smile as the 85-year-old herself got me a glass of water.  

Doug Dechert, who threw the opening party for her show at the Leonard Tourne gallery, open through early June with few paintings unsold, described her as a Holocaust survivor.  She hadn't made the opening, so when this strong lady with beautiful hair and spirit led me to her white damask sofa, the coffee table spread with those Dutch cookies with a chocolate bar fused to the top, dried fruits and nuts, embroidered linen napkins and tiny plates that looked like Meissen, "My Mother's," she said, I had underestimated her strength.  

Sonja Eisenberg came to this country penniless.  Her Father in a concentration camp, her Mother had hocked everything she could to hire lawyers to get them out of the country, shipped ahead what furniture and household items that were left that she could, and got them there on a visa and a 3-month concession (rent-free because they had no money).  In the beginning, Sonja and her mother worked putting bobby pins on cards, sewing buttons on cards to be sold.

Oil painting of Sonja's Mother's.
Before the Nazis took over, her father manufactured butter and had 100 dairy stores in Berlin.  He somehow got out of the prison and made it to America.  The only time Sonja saw her father cry was when he walked into the little apartment her mother had made up for them, expecting to find them in squalor, and saw their things from home.

Sonia recalled, "At an afternoon get-together at cafe Rummpelmeyer, someone called out, 'Are you Mr. Weinberger?'  His reputation of honesty and capability had followed him to the U.S.A.  He was hired by the polish delegation to turn their failing business around, which he did."

Sonja's own life, though, has been about making it through even more than the Holocaust.  After her first child was born, she got a complication from strep throat that left her nearly crippled, screaming in bed.  It took years for her to meet doctors who could help her.  "Doctors at the Mayo clinic diagnosed Polyneuritis Guillain Barree. Help came through my studies of physical rehabilitation, which took years." 

Though she never studied art, only music with Adele Marcus from the Julliard school, she had taught herself to draw as a child in Germany (the two pencil drawings).  

Sonja doesn't have anything in mind when she creates. These look like sailboats.
Her first paintings were made in bed.  After her first work in oil, messy and fumy in the bedroom, her son bought her a watercolor set, saying "make me a picture for my birthday."  So she began making watercolors and never stopped, though she did rise and reclaim oils, pastels, and other media.  When she couldn't paint with large strokes, she made collages out of tiny pieces of paper.

This firstborn son died at age 12 of leukemia and on his deathbed said, "Share with everyone what you have taught me...that there may be no more war." 

Mourning his death in their dark apartment on 86th Street, her husband said, "You need a little more light; let's look at this apartment around the corner." A new building was going up on one of the most desirable streets.  They bought into it and got to design the interiors themselves with carpenter Fred Samuel.  

Every inch of it is well designed and stylish, right down to the cabinet knobs.  "Now I have to pay the maintenance."

On a tour of her paintings, she showed me her office with a big apple computer and hand-written lists stock symbols.  She gave me some stock tips and we compared notes.  She knew what dividends every stock was paying.

Early collage
She and her beau, to whom her carpenter introduced her after her husband died, brought out countless notebooks and portfolios of drawings and paintings, many of which are on her website http://sonjaeisenberg.net.  The art in the Tourne gallery is but a glimpse of the volume of work and spirit of the big heart that created it.

Portrait of her daughter after she was diagnosed with Multiple Schlerosis
I might ordinarily want to weep over the sadness of sick children, so many stories in one family, yet Sonja quickly says she learned long ago that worry and fret are "pointless."

There is tremendous strength in this artist.  Her studio and life are meticulously organized.  I wanted to take a picture of her closet, from which she handed me a phone card she designed.  How much richer an experience a painting is when you get to know the artist.


She drew this when she couldn't dance

I believe this is from her Tree of Life series


  1. Fabulous paintings!

  2. Incredible person, amazing artist.

  3. What an amazing story!! I hope you will do more about her. What an extraordinary survivor.

  4. I have known Sonja for 38 years - she introduced my wife to me and we have enjoyed her art in our home. Everyday of our lives we look at Sonja's work and it has endless beauty. You never tire of looking at anything Sonja produces. But most of all she is such a dear wonderful person - who makes a difference every day for so many others. Congratulations for more people recognizing her and thank you Sonja for your love of life.
    Alex Gerstenzang

    1. I have known Sonja since 1970 when my ex was selling a painting for Jack, and she asked me to design catalogs for her first art exhibition. You captured her spirit beautifully. The sicker she got, the more joyous her paintings became. I was supposed to visit her this or next week and just got the news, too upset to add anything right now.
      Marcia Bennett-Bernier

    2. Marcia, what news? I didn't hear. I just googled. Nothing came up. Thank you for your kind words. Strong lady.

  5. Wow! Must be seen by all!


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