Yoni Kaplan

Artist - Winner of "Best of the Best" for 2017- Rutgers University
When asked how he discovered his artistic talents, Yonatan, better known as Yoni, replied, “it was less of a discovery and more of a long, slow fermentation.”  As a self-taught artist who started drawing at an early age with crayons, Yoni soon found his love in the medium of pencil on paper through the simple act of doodling in the margins of his academic notebooks. 
But how does one go from being a young doodler to a Best of Show winning artist? Yoni strongly attributes his continued pursuit of the arts to the praises of his childhood art by his parents and the inspiration he found in his older brother’s natural creative talents.  His parents helped to encourage the artistic spark by taking the family on regular trips to local art museums while his brother was always there with a willingness to help him improve his techniques. His brother also provided Yoni with a passion to improve that can only come from the sibling rivalry experienced in their youth stating that, “the impetus to draw was always about self-expression, the impetus to draw well was about sibling rivalry.”  However, over the years, Yoni’s urge to create became less about competition and more about being able to realize the visions he saw in his head leading him to explore new mediums in an effort to grow his talents.
Now as a busy medical student at the Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, Yoni finds joy in creating smaller projects that he can accomplish in his free time between his demanding academic schedule including some of the pieces featured below.
With an astounding 702 votes for his piece “District Donuts”, here is what Yoni had to say about his experience winning this year’s “Best of the Best” online contest …
Q. How did it feel to win Best of Show for your piece at the Rutgers NJMS NAP exhibit? Has it inspired you to create any additional art?
A. It was really overwhelming. I was so overjoyed I couldn’t believe it. Ms. Gomez had emailed me to come to the ceremony because my artwork won something; I was already super excited about that because I’ve never received any kind of recognition for my art. Well, for my category, the intermediate artists, winners were called one by one and I didn’t hear my name so I thought maybe they mistakenly put me with the professionals. They finished calling the rest of the awards and I realized there must have been a mistake, Ms. Gomez had emailed the wrong person. When she announced the Best of Show and I heard my name I almost cried. I might have cried, the whole thing is a blur now, but I remember immense pride and immense gratitude. It was so validating for a panel of objective expert judges outside of my immediate circle to acknowledge that my art spoke to them. The confidence has absolutely inspired me to create more.
Q. Tell us a little bit about your entry entitled “District Donut”? What inspired you to create it? What was it about this particular medium and/or subject matter that inspired you?
A. “District Donut” was inspired by love. The subject of the piece is my girlfriend and muse, Jessica Greenberg. I wanted to convey in this portrait how I feel about her by conveying in this portrait how she feels about that donut. At its simplest, this is a candid capture of a girl stuffing her face with a donut.  At its truest, this is an unapologetic crystalized instant of sheer joy. She’s too distracted by her enjoyment of that tasty treat to care about perfect hair or flattering angles. What she tells the viewer is that her happiness depends on enjoying what’s in front of her rather than a veneer of snapchat filters and perfectly composed Instagram selfies. That’s just my take on the piece, it’s by no means the correct meaning. I’m always happy to hear what impressions my works evoke in other viewers. The medium is oil pastel. I really like the vibrant colors and the gradients you can blend between them. This was the third and most involved oil pastel portrait I composed the summer of 2016. This particular one took me 3 months to complete. The hands alone took me about three hours per square inch of paper to color in. I haven’t touched an oil pastel stick since, but I plan to return to the medium in the future, maybe try a more compliant surface than watercolor paper. The donut she is eating is a powdered donut filled with café- au-lait cream from District Donuts Sliders and Brew in New Orleans.
Q. How did you hear about the NAP show at Rutgers NJMS? What prompted you to enter the exhibit?
A. Last year was my second year participating in the NAP at Rutgers. We have a fantastic art program at New Jersey Medical School coordinated by the inestimable Noreen Gomez. She promotes the program to the entire student body, faculty and staff by email and printed flyers in the Medical School Building. It’s always been a dream of mine to one day exhibit my art at a museum, exhibiting on the walls of my school seemed like a good place to start. In addition to the NAP in the spring, there is a Fall Arts festival that she coordinates that again gives the NJMS community and opportunity to exhibit their works.
Q. How do you feel about the opportunity to display your artistic talents in the place where you study? Were your fellow students aware of your artistic talents prior to the art show?
A. It’s so much fun to see my artwork hanging among so many wonderful pieces produced by my teachers, classmates, and the rest of the NJMS community. My close friends are well aware of my tendency to hole myself up in the living room for the evening to work on my latest project, the rest of my classmates may or may not have been aware. It was always fun to bump into a classmate in the hallway who would tell me they saw my painting hanging. I think it’s a really wonderful program, and I definitely learned about the hidden artistic talents of some of my classmates.
Q. As a student at Rutgers NJMS, what are you studying? Do you see art having a role in your future career?
A. I am studying Medicine, I hope to match into a residency in Psychiatry. The arts are of massive importance in psychiatry. Many powerful works of art were fueled by the passionate turmoil of psychiatric pathology. I hope to use my appreciation of art as a tool to better understand patients who may have similar world-views or pathologies as some of those artists. I hope to incorporate some form of art therapy into my practice, whether that be talking about art that the patients produce, or helping patients express themselves through artistic mediums. Practicing art will always be my own personal therapy and self-care outside of work as well.
Q. Have you previously participated in any other NAP exhibits? If so, have you ever won an award?
A. I submitted a series of insect’s in acrylic in the previous year’s exhibit at NJMS. The bugs did not win.
Q. How does the NAP differ from other art exhibitions you have entered?
A. The only other art exhibition I’ve entered is the NJMS Fall Arts program. They’re both similar in that the venue where the art is hung is the same, however the Fall Arts program is not a competition.
Q. How does it feel to win the “Best of the Best” award offered by the NAP? How did you celebrate your win?
Q. It feels “the Best”. Again, I couldn’t believe it. There were so many incredible artworks to compete with, I was proud that my portrait was in good company. I celebrated by letting go of the breath I’d been holding since I went to sleep that night in anticipating of the final tally. The official celebration will have to wait until I finish my pediatrics rotation.
Q. Were you surprised by the number of likes you received during the voting period?  Can you tell us how you were able to accomplish this? Did you have any specific strategies?
A. Completely blown away. I am absolutely humbled by the response that “District Donut” got. It was really exciting when I got my first 100 likes, then we got to around 250 and I thought there’s no way we get past 300. I can tell you that I did not accomplish this by myself. My secret weapons were my girlfriend who I never realized was so competitive until she became my campaign manager, and my little sister, Arielle, who is a social media genius. I’m also incredibly thankful to my little brother Ilan for hammering home the win, the rest of my family, my classmates at NJMS, and everyone else who liked the picture.
Q. Do you utilize social media (ie: Facebook, Instagram, etc) to promote your artwork?
A. Not until this competition.
Q. What did you think of our “Best of the Best” art show and online contest? Did you take part in last year’s voting?
A. As a contestant it was a lot of fun if a little nerve-wracking. I think the two months is a really generous voting period, and it was very exciting to see how the different pieces started to pick up steam and then plateau out. I didn’t know about the competition until this year, but I’ll definitely be voting in next year’s contest!
Q. Did you think that using a social media site such as Facebook to host this was successful?
A. It seems like over 2000 people interacted with the competition in one form or another. I think it got a lot of people thinking about art and reaching the National Arts Program who otherwise would have gone about their day devoid of any art.
Q. Is there anything else you would like people to know?
A. It’s never too late to try your hand at art. Van Gough didn’t start painting until he was 28. Don’t be afraid to do something you’ve never done before, it might turn out to be beautiful.
Pictured (clockwise from top left): "Dessert at Cafe Central" (2016); "Butter-butt" (2018); "Gulls on the Hudson" (2014); "Metallic Green Beetle" (2012); "Whistling Ducks" (2018); "Sunset Kiss" (2018)