Long-time artist and Roosevelt resident, Bernarda Bryson Shahn has always been happiest when she is traveling. In a more innocent time, as a first-year college student in the 1920s, she and a friend spent their spring break walking from Athens, Ohio, to Rising Sun, West Virginia, staying at the farmhouses of both strangers and family along the way. Years later, during the Great Depression in 1935 and 1936, she did all the driving while touring the rural South with her new husband, the artist Ben Shahn, who was on assignment taking
photographs for the historical division of the U.S. Resettlement Administration.
Acknowledging an early influence that inspired her to be such an adventurer and traveler, Bryson Shahn says that as a child at bedtime, she could never nod off to sleep in the usual way when her mother would recite Coleridge’s poem, "The Ancient Mariner." The exciting rise and fall of her mother’s voice, and the unfolding of the wonderful story of adventure, simply banished her drowsiness.
Born in 1903, Bryson Shahn’s spirit of adventure, with its inherent propensity for discovery, has served her well over the past 94 years. Her dynamic inner spirit comprises a potent combination of eager curiosity and illuminating experience, which she aptly translates into artfully drawn images. A well-selected, one-person exhibition titled "Figures of Earth," currently gathers together many of Bryson Shahn’s etchings, drawings, and lithographs which share similar traits. It remains on view to February 11 at the upstairs gallery of the Printmaking Council of New Jersey in Somerville.
By no means a one-note artist, Bryson Shahn’s representational figurative images arise from many rich sources such as history, mythology, and literature as well as the seeable or real world. She says that "seeing leads to thinking of other things." With her technically proficient hand, she animates even cold, hard rocks.
As a self-described "amateur archaeologist," Bryson Shahn looks for the inherent quality of each place she visits. Prompted by visual inspirations from her travels to places such as Kyoto, Japan, Knossos, on Crete, and New Zealand, she draws from a combination of memory and imagination as images come across her inner field of vision.
Personifying sites with her skillful drawing, as in such works as "Figure in a Stony Landscape," she lightly inscribes naturally occurring boulders and rocks with haunting faces, subtle enough to provide only the merest hint of mystery. These anthropomorphic features complement the lone figure who stands with her back toward us as she gazes over a boulder strewn landscape with its feathery poplars standing tall against the horizon. The print evokes a haunting sense of
The intriguing presence of human activity as geological formations are modified to become paths, stairs, plazas, temples, and passageways are evident in many of Bryson Shahn’s images. Her etching of the ruins of Hagar Qum, in Malta, shows the process of organic dilapidation reminding us of nature’s trick of mortality. In two different versions of the Seacoast at Denia, soft charcoal strokes recreate the hard boulders that envelope a calm blue sea and form the base of distant mountains. She has made even the most rugged of geological materials embody a humanist notion of prevailing endurance.
Although no dates are provided in the catalog, the works on paper in this exhibit have been created in the many years between the earliest 1928 etching, titled "Face," to a 1997 charcoal drawing titled "The Keeper of the Wide World Dump." In the summer of 1996, a number of the etchings and lithographs were shown at the Printmaking Council in a joint show with Jacob Landau’s drawings titled the "Frances Series." Evidently, the 1996 studio visit by Wink Einthoven, the Printmaking Council’s former gallery director, inspired the current thematic, one-person exhibition that has been expertly hung by its
new gallery director, George Taylor.
Bryson Shahn says that many of the places where she has been, even for short periods of time, have had powerful affects on her. In the early 1990s, while on a boat trip of the Nile, she disembarked in the dark gray light before dawn and had the good fortune to reach the Temple at Luxor just as the sun rose and illuminated its facade. "It was the most magnificent thing I had ever seen," she says. It is quite the testament to her enduring spirit of exploration that
even in her late 80s, this artist still experiences the marvelous.
Now primarily a painter in her late career, since the 1970s she has created figurative images that incorporate enchanting motifs of the surreal and references to classical imagery. In 1995, several of her oil paintings on wood panels were displayed at the Princeton Day School along with pottery by her daughter, Abby Shahn, and silk hangings by her granddaughter, Amanda Slamm. Bryson Shahn’s extended family also includes her son Jonathan Shahn, a well-regarded sculptor and Roosevelt resident.
The Printmaking Council is always a hubbub of activity. Presently Robert Schwieger, a visiting artist and arts educator from Missouri Southern University, is printing abstract designs onto recycled wallpaper samples, creating the basic materials for his elaborate constructed works. As the first representative of the council’s brand-new artist-in-residence program, he will have the opportunity to explore his own work in an open sharing environment. This Printmaking Council has arrived, after many years of development, at its goal of providing both member artists and now visiting artists a site to act on their own spirits of adventure and discovery.