It’s not surprising that Bonnie Astor ’73, an artist on the staff for The Statesman, Stony Brook University’s student newspaper, has carved out a successful career in the arts. But the painter, photographer and mixed-media artist from Long Island City took an unusual path to get there, including 30 years as a nurse.
While art was a passion that she pursued at Stony Brook, Astor shifted her career focus after her father’s death. As a graduate of Stony Brook University’s School of Nursing, Astor had a fulfilling career as a community health nurse and even spent time in southern India helping to develop nursing staff and an outpatient program at a rural hospital. After working to improve nursing care during the AIDS crisis in California and moving to Seattle with her family to work as a mental health nurse, she started teaching art workshops. Eventually, Astor moved back home to New York, eager to reconnect with her roots in the arts.
Her two paths have now converged: Astor is an art specialist at AHRC, where she integrates artists with cognitive and developmental disabilities into the community. Astor is now confident that she is happiest when creating art, especially for nonprofit organizations whose goals are similar to hers.
Astor remains connected to her alma mater in many ways. She was a member of the Stony Brook University School of Nursing Alumni Board during her nursing career. In 2020, she established the Jeffrey Alan Astor Endowed Scholarship Fund for Stony Brook University nursing students studying oncology and pediatrics. The scholarship honors her brother, who passed away from leukemia at only two years old. She recently returned to campus for her class’s 50th reunion.
How did it feel to be back on campus?
It was so great to see all of the new buildings. I really enjoyed heading into the archives to reminisce. And seeing my bleeding peace symbol artwork on the cover of The Statesman brought me back to the ’70s again. I’m very proud of that piece.
I have come back to Stony Brook for some of the School of Nursing scholarship and graduation ceremonies. However, about 10 years ago, Dr. Lee Ann Xippolitos, the nursing dean at the time, offered to give me a tour of Stony Brook Hospital, which did not exist when I graduated in 1973. During that tour, I saw so many pediatric patients living with leukemia, which reminded me of my brother. It was a moment that truly gave me an understanding of the purpose of life, the importance of research, and how one person can make a difference.
What was your time like at Stony Brook?
When I first started at Stony Brook in 1968, I wanted to be Margaret Mead. I wanted to be an anthropologist and travel all over the world! I was taking art classes, and I was interested in all of the social sciences. I joined the Statesman art staff and would hang out at Roth Pond listening to music. And I remember that we had top-notch musical acts that came to Stony Brook. It was fabulous. I think I went to every weekend concert on campus.
What made you switch majors to become a nurse? What was it like to be a student at the School of Nursing so early on?
My brother dying at such a young age certainly had an impact. When my father passed away suddenly at only 50 years old in my junior year, I realized that trying to make a living as a female artist might be difficult. I researched the School of Nursing at Stony Brook and switched my major and my program. I also had to adjust my lifestyle. I could no longer hang out at the Statesman office. I had to be up early for my clinicals at hospitals across Long Island.
What was your experience in southern India like?
The experience was unbelievable. I was a visiting professor and worked with two female doctors at the hospital. We were all around the same age, and we ran the whole facility in terms of patient care. I felt so grateful for the opportunity — here I was, a young woman from the projects in Brooklyn, in a leadership role at a hospital in India for six months.
While there, I helped to develop outpatient services. I taught about 20 young women from a village in Mysore State. My mission was to teach them as much as I could about nursing. There were no textbooks, so my drawing skills actually came in handy.
How did you end up back in New York teaching art?
While in Seattle, I got accepted into an NYU program for teachers who wanted to get a master’s degree in art, particularly in drawing and painting. It took place over three summers — two years in Venice, Italy, and the other in New York City. I graduated from that program in 2010 and got involved in the Fountain House Gallery in New York. I retired from nursing around 2017. And I redid my resume to reflect my art.
When I moved back to New York permanently, I started volunteering with different organizations and using my art degree. I spoke with AHRC New York City about volunteering, and they hired me as an art inclusion specialist to work with people with cognitive and emotional disabilities. And I absolutely love it. I lead different programs, including museum tours, Lincoln Center concerts, and more. I love that I can use my nursing and my art skills in this second career I have carved out for myself.
Are there any other groups you’re involved with in terms of your art?
I was involved with SHEKEL, an organization like AHRC in Israel. I taught art workshops to people with cognitive disabilities on a mountaintop in the middle of a desert in Israel.
I also developed a project called Art Break Out with a friend. Art Break Out’s mission is to help educate others about people who are not mainstream artists. These artists aren’t necessarily going to showcase their work in museums or even a gallery because they don’t know the system or are self-taught. We coordinate a couple of shows each year to promote their art and give them a platform to explain their work to a wider audience. It is very fulfilling work. And sometimes, I invite the people I work with at AHRC to be part of the shows.
For fun, I belong to the NYC Urban Sketchers. We come together once a week at spots around the city to sketch together and share our work. I have sketchbooks filled with Christmas trees at Rockefeller Center, Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs signs, and more.
What advice would you give students pursuing their careers?
Have a vision of your career path. Follow your passion because, most likely, that is something you’ll be good at and willing to develop. Show intention. As you start meeting people in your profession, showing intention will help open doors for you.
I also encourage doing some kind of service abroad. That experience really expands your outlook on life. It makes us feel compassion for others and provides us with an understanding of diversity and the world around us.