Fiercely Engaged

An exhibit of Bernarda Bryson-Shahn’s WPA prints at the Michener shows how the artist met the issues head on.

By: Ilene Dube
<"Osceola" by Bernarda Bryson-Shahn.>
   Bernarda Bryson-Shahn lived a long and gifted life, filled with art, free-flowing discussions of politics over wine and coffee, a loving relationship with another gifted artist, and a home in an artists’ colony, surrounded by similarly passionate intellectuals. She was adored by all who met her and encountered her work. And yet much of her art depicts the pain and suffering of those less fortunate.
   In one work, for example, captive Africans are crammed into the bowels of a boat as they are being transported to a life of slavery. As painful as it is to see, Bernarda Bryson-Shahn had a vision she rendered in the lithograph, "Middle Passage." She articulates the masses of barely clothed human beings, stacked like sardines in cramped wooden quarters — no room to stand or sit — as they huddle, some with their hands over their faces, others clenching hands over their jaws, shivering, confused, terrified.
   Later, these human beings would go to "Charleston’s Slave Market," in which the artist shows the shackled slaves, newly arrived in the shipyard. The slaves were presented naked for public viewing.
   Ms. Bryson-Shahn, who died in December at age 101, also envisioned the escape of Harriet Tubman, disguised as a man, and Harriet Tubman as Moses with white hair and a beard, kneeling with both hands raised as if imploring to a god for help.
   These images and other 1930s-era works on paper produced for the Works Progress Administration are on view in The Visual Literature of Bernarda Bryson-Shahn: Developing a Social Conscience at the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, Pa., through April 24.
   In addition the body of work she produced, Ms. Bryson-Shahn, who lived in Roosevelt, was the widow of artist Ben Shahn. The couple collaborated on the 45-by-12-foot New Deal mural on Roosevelt’s elementary school and another mural in the Bronx General Post Office. Both still exist. The first depicts the arrival of immigrant Jews at Ellis Island, the coffins of Sacco and Vanzetti, labor leader John L. Lewis, New York City’s tenements and sweat shops, blueprints for the town of Jersey Homesteads (which later was named Roosevelt) and the arrival of immigrants in New Jersey in the mid-1930s.
   "The things that we were doing in the New Deal… were so exciting," she told the Smithsonian Archives of American Art in 1983. "They were inspiring, meaningful. It was probably the most thrilling time that I’ve ever gone through."
   Besides the political content of her work, "She was a really good painter," says Mel Leipzig, an artist and longtime friend who painted Ms. Bryson-Shahn in her studio in 2001. "(She) turned realism to surrealism."
   As a child, Bernarda’s parents — a newspaper man and a Latin professor — gave her chalk with which she created her very first mural on her bedroom wall. She would fall asleep listening to them tell her the story of The Odyssey.
   After studying painting, printmaking and philosophy at Ohio University, she became art critic for the Ohio State Journal. While interviewing muralist Diego Rivera, Ms. Bryson-Shahn met his assistant, Ben Shahn.
   They settled in Roosevelt, named for FDR, a New Deal utopia for garment workers that evolved into an artists’ colony, largely because the Shahns were magnets for other artists.
   In the mid- ’30s, the couple drove cross country, documenting rural life for the Resettlement Administration, from which many of the lithographs in this exhibit come from.
   The "American Gothic"-like couple in "Arkansas Sharecroppers" was encountered on this trip. If the lithograph looks like a Walker Evans photograph, it is not surprising, since Ben Shahn was a protégé of Evans. The man and woman in torn clothes stand before a ramshackle house. A cabin behind them bears a sign, "666 Malaria Chills Fever." 666 was a popular medication for malaria. The leafless trees symbolize agricultural devastation, and the look on their faces tells the story better than anything else.
   Ms. Bryson-Shahn contrasts freedom from slavery with the lives of the sharecroppers in her work.
   In another lithograph, "30,000 Immigrants," huddled masses arrive in New York harbor. With the Statue of Liberty visible through a window, the Eastern European immigrants will be greeted by unfair child labor practices and long hours of factory work.
   The Shahns had three children together and married shortly before Mr. Shahn’s death in 1969. During the next several decades, Ms. Bryson-Shahn wrote and illustrated books. She had several one-woman shows in New York and at William Paterson University in Wayne.
   Sometimes called a nonagenarian, Ms. Bryson-Shahn once told a reporter the secret to her longevity was eating potatoes and drinking wine. Her neighbors remember the large quantities of coffee she drank over discussions of politics and art.
   "Her work is an eloquent reminder of a life of passion and commitment, and is also evidence of the value of art to teach us about the commonality of our experience," says artist and co-curator Peter Paone. Mr. Paone had been an apprentice to Ben Shahn while studying at Philadelphia College of Art (now the University of the Arts) in the late ’50s. He remained in touch with the family throughout the ’60s, then recently reconnected when he introduced his friend and co-curator, Mary Veronica Sweeney, a New York City based writer and artist, to Ms. Shahn. Ms. Sweeney’s article about Ms. Bryson-Shahn will appear in the spring edition of Ms. Magazine, and she is writing a book about the Social Realist, as well.
   While working on her thesis in graduate school at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts 11 years ago, Ms. Sweeney learned that Mr. Paone, a distinguished faculty member, had known the Shahns and attended the Sunday gatherings of artists and intellecturals in their home. She has been researching for a book ever since.
   "I first became interested as a child when I’d seen the haunting images Ben Shahn created about the Sacco and Vanzetti trial," says Ms. Sweeney. "It was a fierce political issue during his time, the death penalty for arguably innocent immigrants, and he used a fierce, raw-edged line to depict the details of its portraiture. I’d never forgotten the image: two men shackled together, one with hollow, blank eyes stopped me."
   In 1998, Ms. Sweeney joined Harvard’s Institute for Arts and Civic Dialogue directed by the actress/playwright/activist Anna Deveare-Smith. "I had known of the archive of Ben Shahn’s photographs taken during the Depression but hadn’t counted on finding images of his wife, Bernarda," Ms. Sweeney says. "We were convening at Harvard to tease apart the possibilities of how artists could or should participate in the wider dialogue about society. Bernarda became for me an emblem of all the conversation that had been rumbling in Cambridge that summer… Here was an example of a woman, near a century old at the time, who had lived a long life creating beautiful images as an integral part of being an activist and unabashed humanitarian."
   Ms. Sweeney, whose own artwork includes illustrations for a PBS project and a series of paintings of figures in deep meditation, says she is still asking Ben Shahn’s great question: What is the shape of content? Before Ms. Bryson-Shahn’s death, Ms. Sweeney had the opportunity to show her her work and get feedback.
   "I really have taken the deepest encouragement from my connection to Bernarda," she says. "Upon hearing of my many manuscripts and projects, she took my arm warmly and advised, ‘Darling, you must not stop, follow what compels you.’ Who could question advice such as that from a brave and robust human being? She was alive to her time in a way we could all emulate. I believe her story begs to be told. Perhaps it is my way staying in touch with a soul I enjoyed so much, of keeping that conversation going."
The Visual Literature of Bernarda Bryson-Shahn is on view at the James A. Michener Art Museum, 138 S. Pine St., Doylestown, Pa., through April 24. Museum hours: Tues.-Fri. 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m., Sat. 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Sun. noon-5 p.m. Admission costs $6.50, $6 seniors, $4 students/children, members/under age 6 free. For information, call (215) 340-9800. On the Web: