Artist leaves legacy of creativity spanning century

Bernarda Shahn, 101, recalled for friendship & prolific body of work


Staff Writer

FILEPHOTO Artist Bernarda Shahn, who helped her late husband, Ben, paint the Roosevelt Mural in 1936-37, was a well-known figure in the small Monmouth County town of Roosevelt.FILEPHOTO Artist Bernarda Shahn, who helped her late husband, Ben, paint the Roosevelt Mural in 1936-37, was a well-known figure in the small Monmouth County town of Roosevelt. On April 6, 2003, the small western Monmouth County community of Roosevelt celebrated the 100th birthday of its most prominent resident, Bernarda Bryson Shahn, with a party held at the Roosevelt Public School in front of the 45-foot-wide, 12-foot-high mural her husband, the late artist Ben Shahn, executed in 1936-37.

On Dec. 13, Shahn passed away while sleeping at home and on Dec. 16 the community gathered again to honor the 101-year-old woman who meant so much to so many.

Shahn’s funeral service was attended by about 100 people, including family members, residents, professional contacts and artists. She was buried on a hilltop at the Roosevelt Cemetery next to her husband, who died in 1969. Also buried nearby are a number of the other artists who followed the Shahns to Roosevelt, making it a small community of many artists.

Bernarda Shahn leaves behind a family of artists. She lived with her granddaughter, Amanda, an artist, in the house she and Ben purchased almost 70 years ago. Their son, Jonathan, a sculptor, lives next door. A daughter, Abby, lives in Maine. Shahn is also survived by two other grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

Although Ben Shahn has an international reputation, Bernarda had her own prolific and critically successful career. Her life as an artist spanned eight decades and includes paintings, illustrations, lithographs and books.

Shahn was an artist because she was artistic.

“It’s something that gets hold of you. If you’re not doing it, you want to be doing it,” she said.

Apparently she knew early in her life that she was an artist. She studied painting, printmaking and philosophy at Ohio State University and then began writing. She wrote for the Ohio State Journal and in the 1940s wrote and illustrated the children’s books “The Zoo of Zeus” and “Gilgamesh.” Both books were on display in the school auditorium during her 100th birthday celebration.

Nancy Einreinhofer, director of the Ben Shahn Galleries at William Paterson University, Wayne, said of Shahn during a retrospective of her artwork in 2002 that she had dedicated her life to art. She added that Shahn was always a superb draftsman and that all through her long life, she had been concerned with political and social issues.

Many people wanted to know the secret of her longevity. In an Associated Press article published after her 99th birthday, Shahn said she did not have a formula for longevity. She told the interviewer that she drank wine and ate potatoes, and said she had a happy disposition.

According to her longtime friend and neighbor Pearl Seligman, Shahn should have mentioned how much coffee she drank.

“I was 16 years old when I met Bernarda, so over the years I drank thousands of cups of coffee with her. We talked about politics, art, society, our lives. We had decades of conversation,” she said.

Seligman said at the cemetery service, “The gift was greater than words. It meant that I was worthy of her time.”

As for Bernarda’s longevity, Seligman said her friend ate all the wrong things, including a lot of salt and fatty foods. Members of her family died relatively young, so it was not genetics that helped her live for more than a century.

What it may have been, Seligman speculated, was that Shahn did a lot of physical labor, like cooking and gardening. And she had a full intellectual and artistic life.

“Although they (Ben and Bernarda) lived in a small town, they were part of the big world of art and politics. She was very deeply invested in her intellectual world. Besides painting, she did a lot of writing and editing,” Seligman said.

Seligman said she was far from the only person with whom Shahn shared her coffee and conversation. Although she was busy with family, work and her home, there was always time for friends and visitors.

“Bernarda’s talks, coffee and food enriched many people’s lives,” Seligman said.

She explained that when the Shahns settled in Roosevelt — which at the time still had its original name of Jersey Homesteads — in the late 1930s there were no televisions or computers.

“The Jewish and artistic community is based on a sharing of ideas and it continues to this day,” Seligman said, adding that contacts and conversation are essentially what Roosevelt is all about.

“Ben and Bernarda’s availability to that kind of personal interaction brought many interesting people to this little town,” she said, noting people such as the artist Alexander Calder, poets Archibald MacLeish and William Carlos Williams, and choreographer Jerome Robbins.

Seligman said the people who came to visit the Shahns were people whose names are part of history, and not only art history.

“Their intellectual contacts were part of the active, progressive, political world. Bernarda’s father had owned a newspaper in Ohio. He was a Republican for Roosevelt,” she said.

Seligman said that at one point the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) did a piece on the Shahns and the reporter stayed at her house.

“We often put up their visitors when the Shahns didn’t have room. Eventually, that reporter became the head of the BBC,” she said, adding, “Anybody could turn up here.”

Seligman said Bernarda Shahn was an interesting combination of traits. She was a person with a 19th-century formality, a lady who was also part of the bawdy artistic world. Moving to Roosevelt, which is nestled away in a spot off the beaten path at a point where Monmouth and Mercer counties meet, was like moving to another country for her.

“She was more complicated than most people in town, yet she landed in this funny kind of place,” Seligman said.

Bernarda Bryson was born in 1903 and embodied the whole of the 20th century, Seligman said.

“Bernarda had been heavily involved in all of the things that the Roosevelt administration did. And during the time of the House Committee on Un-American Activities hearings, she had strange contacts with the FBI,” she said.

Under witch-hunt suspicion in the 1950s, Shahn continued to illustrate books and magazines, Einreinhofer said. She listed many of the changes in American life that Shahn experienced, among them two World Wars, the Wright Brothers’ first flight, the stock marketcrash of 1929, the Depression, McCar-thyism, the turbulent 1960s, the affluent 1980s, as well as dramatic developments in arts and culture.

An Ohio native, Shahn was a founding member of the Unemployed Artists Association during the Depression.

Her connection to Roosevelt goes back more than 60 years and began as a fortuitous meeting with Ben Shahn when she was working as a writer and he was working as a muralist.

According to a chronology in the huge book she wrote on her husband and his art called Ben Shahn , they met in 1931 while she was interviewing the Mexican artist Diego Rivera in New York City for a magazine article. Shahn was working as Rivera’s assistant on a mural.

Eventually they married and the creative and adventurous couple drove together across the country while Shahn photographed images of the rural south and midwest for the Historical Section of the Resettlement Administration/Farm Security Administration.

Around that time, Shahn was also commissioned to do two murals, one of which was for the new school in Jersey Homesteads. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt — in whose honor the community was renamed — had created Jersey Homesteads as a Works Projects Admin-istration community. Initially, Jewish garment workers settled the community that had been carved out of a corner of Millstone Township and worked in cooperative enterprises.

In 1939, the Shahns moved into the rural town after spending time there working on what came to be known as the Roosevelt Mural. The mural depicts the arrival of European Jews in America, their struggles in the cities and the eventual creation of Jersey Homesteads by the Roosevelt administration.

The priceless work of art created by the Shahns almost seven decades ago hangs in the Roosevelt Public School that was built to educate the settlers’ children.

According to a May 1984 New Jersey Historical Commission newsletter, Roosevelt is closely associated with the life and works of Ben Shahn. What that newsletter does not say is that Bernarda Bryson Shahn, who outlived her husband by more than 30 years, is considered by many to be the soul of Roosevelt, an honored neighbor.

“When Bernarda died, we all felt that a whole way of life had died,” Seligman said.