Bernarda Bryson Shahn

American , 1903 - 2004

Bernarda Bryson Shahn was born in Athens, Ohio in 1903. She attended Ohio University, Ohio State University, Western Reserve University, the Cleveland School of Art, (where she studied painting and lithography), and later, the New School for Social Research in New York.

The first prints made by Bryson date to her association with Russell Limbach at the Cleveland School of Art in 1928. In addition to her urban views of Cleveland, she made the Side Show Series, drawing the performers of the visiting Hagenbeck and Wallace circus. Beyond the empathy shown for these extraordinary subjects, Bryson used an exceptional two- or three- color lithographic method. The remarkably luminous purples and blue/greens are alone or overlapped, and the color of the paper is used to its best advantage. The figures are rarely outlined, but silhouetted against densely drawn areas. Lines and shading create mass; scratching out and delicate details result in diverse textures and patterns.

From 1929 to 1931, Bryson was the editor of the Columbus Southside Advocate, and in 1931, she was an instructor in etching and lithography at the Columbus Gallery of Fine Arts School. The prints of Depression-related images, such as “Unemployed Madonna, 1929” (#10), are from this period.

In 1933, Bryson visited New York to interview the Mexican muralist, Diego Rivera for the Ohio State Journal. Rivera was making a mural (now destroyed) for the Rockefeller Center, and one of his assistants was the artist Ben Shahn (1898-1969). Shahn would become Bryson’s husband.

Bryson moved to New York in 1934. She made lithographs on the Graphics Division of the Public Works of Art Project. At this time, she was a founding member, president and spokeswoman of the Unemployed Artists Association, later the Artists Union. With Shahn and the modernist artist Stuart Davis, she was an editor of the newspaper, “Art Front”.

In the mid-1930s, Bryson and Shahn moved to Washington D.C. where they worked for the Resettlement Administration documenting farms and rural areas. Bryson made drawings and prints in the lithography shop she established. Her series, “The Vanishing American Frontier” was a result of this project.

Over several decades, beginning in the 1940s and into the 1970s, Bryson made illustrations for magazines such as “Fortune”, “Harper’s” and “The Scientific American”. In the mid- 1950s, she began illustrating books such as “The White Falcon” and “Wuthering Heights”.

In the 1960s, Bryson and Shahn formed an association with the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine, and often spent summers there. Bryson is on the Board of Governors of the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. She is the recipient of the Outstanding Achievement in the Visual Arts Award from the Women’s Caucus for Art in 1989, and an honorary doctorate from Ohio University in Athens.
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