The former garment factory where Jonathan Shahn has his studio is located at the end of the tree-lined Oscar Drive in Roosevelt. On a magnificently sunny Sunday afternoon, the bushy-bearded artist in a plaid flannel shirt stands in the parking lot eating pistachio nuts. It’s lunch, he says. He has just returned from being interviewed by journalism students at Mercer County Community College.
“They wanted to know, ‘what is art?’”
“So what’d you tell them?”
He looks around. “Shall I bring out some chairs, and we can do the interview outside?”
No way! You don’t think I drove all the way to Roosevelt to hang in your parking lot.
Once inside, we pass several tree trunks he has salvaged for carving. They are being eaten by bugs, he tells me — not the kind that create interesting holes and veins, but powder post beetles that turn the wood to sawdust. So these hefty tree trunks are earmarked for the fire bin.
In the large industrial space with a wall of paned windows, semi-covered with a tarp, you may think you are alone with the artist but soon realize there’s an entire village — heads and full figures, carved in wood, sculpted in plaster or clay, cast in bronze. Some are ghostly, covered with cloth, and others, wrapped in movers’ quilts, look like dead bodies. Large heads and small, full figures and figure fragments, and shelves of heads and faces in all sizes — they are no longer raw materials, they embody humanity and seem to be watching. Listening.
The last time you visited the artist you asked, “Do they ever talk to you.”
“Of course not, they’re plaster,” he replied, looking at you as if you were crazy.
Shahn’s wood and plaster heads, as well as drawings, will be part of Grounds For Sculpture’s spring and summer exhibitions opening Saturday, May 4. Shown on the mezzanine of the Domestic Arts Building, some of these are very small, and some are quite tiny. Others are within plaster boxes and are illuminated. Shahn considers them sculptures of sculpture.
There’s a lot of self-referencing going on. “It’s a conceit,” he says. Not in this show, but in his studio is what look like clay heads on armatures. They seem like works in progress, with a wiping rag at the neck and shaved bits of clay at the rough wooden base. But in fact they are bronze casts of clay heads on wooden armatures.
“From the smallest pieces made from lumps of plaster to the larger free-standing wooden heads, there’s a tremendous amount of power in his work,” says Tom Moran, chief curator and director of artistic development at the sculpture park. “He uses lighting to create environments in a box, and it’s like you’re perceiving drama on a stage, a controlled environment. The illumination draws you right in.”
In his previous position as director of arts inclusion and artistic services for the New Jersey State Arts Council, Moran worked with Shahn on two appropriately placed public art projects: a sculptural installation that commemorates Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights struggle and located at the Martin Luther King Jr. Station on the Hudson Bergen Light Rail; and a bas relief of working people, outside the Labor and Industrial Building in Trenton.
Moran says Shahn was chosen for these projects because of his reputation for portraits, such as the large bronze bust of FDR in the center of Roosevelt. “They were warmly received because of the narrative element. His reputation is as a strong figural artist, but he also does heads and faces that are completely imaginary, using abstraction.”
Years ago, Shahn cut a tendon in his hand and could not carve the larger wood pieces, says Moran, so Shahn started making the small plaster pieces from clumps in his studio. “Sometimes life throws you a curve and it sends you in a great direction. Scale and presence are so important in sculpture — these small pieces are proof positive of what you can do on a small scale.”
Meanwhile, Shahn’s hand healed, and after his obsession with smaller scale, he returned to working on the larger wooden works. Once the wood becomes figures or heads, Shahn no longer remembers if the wood is ash or linden or black walnut. He does remember that one piece is made from the same wood as a seated figure in the collection of the Princeton University Art Museum.
Shahn used to give them titles like “Head on Square with a Neck Tie,” but simplified to numbering them.
He says he is messy, but the studio is well organized, with shelves of like work, neatly stacked carving tools, and a pile of cherry wood he is saving for smaller pieces. His drawings are carefully wrapped and stored in flat files. “Drawing is a way of thinking,” he says. “I draw all the time.”
Shahn has been drawing since childhood. Surrounded by artists, it came naturally. “All children draw,” he says. “Some just grow out of it.” There was never much doubt that Jonathan would become an artist. “I was not a big career planner. I never thought I’d be a doctor or an airplane pilot.”
He continues to draw everywhere — on the brown paper liner over his working table, on the walls, even on the sculpture itself. “I draw while I’m making marks about where to cut,” he says. “I used to take it off, but now I like it on.” He enhances the line with black paint, markers, watercolor, and gesso. He finds it increasingly hard to find the White Out pens he loves.
Sometimes Shahn makes a drawing of a sculpture after he makes the sculpture. “I cheat,” he says. “It’s perfectly legal to cheat if it’s art.”
His famous parents, artists Ben Shahn and Bernarda Bryson Shahn, are credited with having established Roosevelt as an art community. They first arrived in Roosevelt, then Jersey Homesteads, in 1937, when Ben received a commission from the Farmland Security Administration to paint a community mural. Ben Shahn’s renowned mural in the Roosevelt Public School depicts the passage of European Jews through Ellis Island, and their escape from New York’s dark tenements and sweatshops, led by Albert Einstein, to cooperative farms and a factory out in the country.
The farming experiment failed, but many of the Shahns’ artist friends came to live in the Bauhaus homes designed by Louis Kahn, resulting in a different kind of utopia.
That world seems to carry on in the son’s studio. Many of Shahn’s sculpted figures were modeled after members of the Roosevelt community, though more recent heads are fanciful.
Shahn has been working in the former garment factory, now shared with Action Packaging and another tenant, since 1982. The building has served as a hat factory, a button factory, and a place were geodesic domes were manufactured.
The artist has lived in Roosevelt since he was two, then left in 1955 to go to Swarthmore College. His major would change depending on what grades he got in a particular subject. “It wasn’t so hard to get into Swarthmore in 1955,” he says in a self-deprecating way. “It must have been a mistake. People didn’t study back then.”
After two years at Swarthmore, he was asked to leave. “Our letters crossed in the mail,” he says. “I was ready to leave anyway.”
From there he went to the Boston Museum School. He wound up specializing in sculpture because it didn’t require the “boring perspective class” he didn’t want to take. (He has since taught drawing. “I help people draw what they see.”) “I was not good at neat things,” he says. “That’s why Mel (Leipzig) and I get along, because he likes messy places.” Leipzig has painted Shahn in his studio and also painted Shahn’s mother toward the end of her life.
“I was interested in sculpture anyway,” Shahn continues, having admired the sculpture in the Boston Museum. After working as an artist and at odd jobs in Boston, and later as an artist on a grant in Illinois, he packed up to go to Europe for what he expected to be a year and wound up living in Rome for nine.
“I got to look at a lot,” he says. “In Italy there is sculpture everywhere.”
He taught for Tyler School of Art in Italy, learned Italian, and had his son. Shahn returned to Roosevelt in 1979, living in the house adjacent to his parents, where he and his wife, Jean, a physical therapist, raised Jasper. These days, the 75-year-old commutes to New York by bus two days a week to teach at the Art Students’ League. While in the city — he loves cities — he visits galleries, museums, and occasionally his son.
Shahn enjoys speaking about Jasper’s Brooklyn neighborhood, Ditmas Park — the coffee shops, health food store, and hardware store where Jasper heard Yiddish for the first time. Shahn would have liked if Jasper lived in Williamsburg where his father, a Lithuanian immigrant, had lived, but Williamsburg has become too expensive.
Ben Shahn died in 1969, and Bernarda died in 2004. Jonathan’s niece, a horticulturalist and the daughter of Jonathan’s sister, Abby, an artist in Maine, had been living in the Shahn house, with its built-in Nakashima furnishings, until two years ago. The house was recently sold to a family who is fixing it up.
Shahn works out at the gym at Mercer County Community College. “Someone said I should exercise after my cardiac operation,” he says. Cardiac operation? “I can’t remember — they put in a stent.” That’s where he met journalism instructor David Levine. Shahn told Levine’s students the machines are so boring, he reads while he’s working out. What does he read at the gym? “The London Review of Books.”
So just how did he answer the MCCC journalism student’s question of what is art? “It’s a hard question. Most people look at art because it hits them.”
Jonathan Shahn: Heads in Wood and Plaster, Grounds For Sculpture, 18 Fairgrounds Road, Hamilton. May 4 through September 22. $8 to $12.
Art Salon: Jonathan Shahn. Thursday, June 6, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Conversation and lunch at Rat’s, $60. 609-586-0616 or www.groundsforsculpture.org.