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The Visual Literature of Bernarda Bryson-Shahn: Developing a Social Conscience
January 29 - April 24, 2005
The James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown is presenting The Visual Literature of Bernarda Bryson-Shahn: Developing a Social Conscience, a selection of 1930s-era works on paper by one of America's most distinguished 20th century artists, who built a record of activism and creative production spanning eight decades.
Ms. Bryson-Shahn, who passed away in December 2004 at the age of 101, began her career as a writer, printmaker and illustrator, and was known in recent decades for her paintings. Born in Athens, Ohio in 1903, Ms. Shahn's family was deeply involved in journalism and social activism, both of which would inform her life and work. (right: Bernarda Bryson-Shahn, A Mule and a Plow, n.d., lithograph on paper, H. 43 x W. 30 inches, Courtesy of the Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. )
Produced as part of the Works Progress Administration documentary project, the prints featured in this exhibition explore the difficult life of the American worker and farmer in the 1930s. "Her work is an eloquent reminder of a life of passion and commitment," Paone says, "and is also evidence of the value of art to teach us about the commonality of our experience."
A lifelong activist on behalf of the disenfranchised, Ms. Shahn described President Franklin D. Roosevelt as "a philosophical humanist." Speaking with an interviewer for the Smithsonian Institute's Archives of American Art in 1983 , she said: "In those days it was another time of people who were disinherited. That's what Roosevelt meant when he talked about the forgotten man. He provided for human beings something they could really believe in." In the Archives interview she recalled a humorous example of an activist demonstration she participated in:
In 1933 she was working as a journalist and was sent to New York to interview the muralist Diego Rivera. There she met Ben Shahn,  then Mr. Rivera's assistant, who would become her life companion. They married in 1969, shortly before Ben Shahn's death.
The pair drove across the U.S. in the mid-1930s, documenting rural life for the Resettlement.Administration. They also collaborated on two still-existent murals during the New Deal period: one in what is now an elementary school in Roosevelt, N.J. and the other in the Bronx General Post Office. As she told the Archives of American Art in the 1983 interview: "The things that we were doing in the New Deal -- the things that we were doing were so exciting; they were inspiring, meaningful. It was probably the most thrilling time that I've ever gone through."
In mid career her work focused mainly on illustration. Among the children's titles she wrote and illustrated were "The Zoo of Zeus" (1964) and "Gilgamesh" (1967). It was later in life, in the early 1970s following the death of her husband, that she took up painting steadily and became recognized as an artist in her own right.
In 2002 the Ben Shahn Galleries at William Paterson University held a retrospective of Ms. Shahn's work. In the news release for the show Nancy Einreinhofer, director of the Ben Shahn Galleries said: "Bernarda Bryson Shahn has dedicated her entire life to art... The early part of her career, the 1920s and 1930s, was dominated by the various print mediums, mainly etching and lithography. What we might view as Bernarda's mid-career was dedicated primarily to illustration. She routinely created illustrations for many of the prominent journals of the period and also did several books. For the last thirty years or so, Bernarda has been painting. There will be about ten paintings in the exhibit, about 50 works in all. All through this long life, Bernarda has been concerned with political and social issues, and always, always she has been the superb draftsman. Those are the constants in this work: the social conscience and the artistic ability to render the concept."
In the Archives interview she said of her illustrations:
Ms. Shahn's one-woman exhibitions included shows at Midtown Galleries in New York in 1983; at the Ben Shahn Galleries of William Paterson University in Wayne, NJ, in 2002; and at the Susan Teller Gallery in Lower Manhattan last year in honor of her 100th birthday. Ms. Shahn's work is in the permanent collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art and other institutions. Ms. Shahn passed away on December 12, 2004 at her home in Roosevelt, NJ.
The exhibition is co-curated by Mary Veronica Sweeney, an artist and writer from New York City, and Peter Paone, artist and former apprentice to Ms. Shahn's late husband, the painter Ben Shahn. Sponsored by Mary Lou and Andrew Abruzzese and the Pineville Tavern, it will be on view in the Pfundt Gallery in Doylestown from January 29 through April 24, 2005.
1. Click here to read the Smithsonian Institute's Archives of American Art interview with Bernarda Bryson Shahn conducted by Liza Kirwin In Roosevelt, New Jersey April 29, 1983
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