Sinikka Benson, an art teacher who taught and inspired middle school students for nearly four decades and was a working artist in her own right, died April 5 at the University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Medical Center in Bel Air of complications from a hernia. The White Hall resident was 74.
The former Mirjami Satu-Sinikka Paavola — who was known as Sinikka — was the daughter of Arvo Paavola, a carpenter, and Meimi Paavola. Mrs. Benson was born in Vaasa, Finland, and emigrated from there with her family in the late 1940s to Baltimore, where they settled in Highlandtown.
After graduating from Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High School, she earned a bachelor’s degree in art education in 1969 from what is now Towson University, and she also received a master’s degree in art education.
While at Towson, she met and fell in love with Raymond A. Benson, whom she married in 1970.
In 1969, she joined the faculty of Loch Raven Middle School as an art teacher and in 1987 began teaching at Hereford Middle School. She was art department chair at both schools for more than 30 years.
“We both started at Hereford in 1987,” recalled Kathy Peterson, an art teacher and colleague. “For me, she was a mentor because she had been teaching for a number of years and set a great example. She had a natural way with kids and was so talented herself and could impart that to the students and I never saw her lose her temper.”
“She took so much pride in her students and their creative abilities,” wrote daughters, Keira Benson McGuire, of Freeland, and Seija Krasowski, of Stewartstown, Pennsylvania, in a biographical profile of her mother. “She would create amazing display cases in the halls of the school featuring their art and photos to applaud their talent and efforts. Often former students will comment on how much they loved having Mrs. Benson as an art teacher — including her son-in-law Tim McGuire, who was a former student.”
When Mrs. Benson retired in 2006, she suggested that Carrie Aitken, a former student, take her place and teach her former classroom.
“Mrs. Benson taught art in a way that not only taught students technique and skills — but in a way that taught them to see the world differently. To find the beauty. She inspired me to be an artist, a lover of beauty and to devote my life to giving my students what she gave me — the ability to see it,” Ms. Aitken wrote in an email.
Said Ms. Peterson: “My daughter was one of her students and learned a lot from her. And she really enjoyed art class.”
As an accomplished watercolorist, retirement allowed her to pursue her own work, which was shown often and earned awards. She was a devotee of the plein-air school, or painting outdoors on location.
“We did a lot of painting trips together, and she taught me a lot of things,” Ms. Peterson said.
Mrs. Benson was an active member of the Harford Artists’ Association and participated in many juried shows, where her work drew many awards, but more important to her was “connecting with fellow artists and art lovers,” her daughter wrote in her profile.
Mrs. Benson was recently awarded Best in Show for a painting that depicted three women at an airport.
“One judge commented that the painting made them feel like they were there and that meant a lot to Sinikka,” her daughters wrote. “Often people would comment that Sinikka’s paintings felt peaceful which also brought her joy because she was at peace when painting.”
Mrs. Benson was an avid traveler and a member of a travel group.
Family was always the center point of her life, and she was a doting grandmother whose four grandchildren called her “Mummi.”
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“The five of them were a pack, and Sinikka was the glue,” her daughter wrote. “She filled their childhood with invented games, scavenger hunts, spooky stories, art projects and so much patience and love.”
A celebration of life gathering will be held May 2 from 5 - 8 p.m. at Liriodendron Mansion at 502 W. Gordon St. in Bel Air.
In addition to Ms. McGuire and Mr. McGuire, Ms. Krasowski and her husband Kevin Krasowski, and four grandchildren, she is survived two brothers, Sam Paavola of Queenstown and Matti Paavola of Parkville, and a sister, Susanna Paavola of Phoenix in Baltimore County.
This story has been updated. A previous version of this story omitted who wrote the family biographical profile and incorrectly stated when Raymond Benson died. The Baltimore Sun regrets the errors.