Sculptor Jonathan Shahn continues legacy of his famous artist parents

This is part of a series from Ilene Dube of The Artful Blogger.

Roosevelt would probably be just another tree-lined New Jersey suburb if it weren’t for artists Ben and Bernarda Bryson Shahn, who made it an artist 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. He had previously worked with Diego Rivera on the Rockefeller Center 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.

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Jonathan Shahn’s impact

That world seems to carry on in the son’s studio. Many of Jonathan Shahn’s sculpted figures were modeled after members of the Roosevelt community, although more recent heads are fanciful, heads from his head.

Shahn’s wood and plaster heads, as well as drawings, are on view at Grounds For Sculpture in nearby Hamilton. Shown on the mezzanine of the Domestic Arts Building. Some are contained within plaster boxes and are illuminated — Shahn considers them sculptures of sculpture.

The former garment factory where Shahn has his studio is located at the end of Oscar Drive in Roosevelt. Shahn has been working here since 1982. The building has served as a hat factory, a button factory and a place were geodesic domes were manufactured.

Inside 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 the materials they are made of, they embody humanity and seem to be watching. Listening.

“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,” said 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.”

On a sunny Sunday afternoon, the bearded artist in a plaid flannel shirt stands in the parking lot eating pistachio nuts from his pockets. It’s lunch, he says. He has just returned from being interviewed by journalism students at Mercer County Community College.

Shahn 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 said. “I draw all the time.”

He draws 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 said. “I used to take it off but now I like it on.” He enhances the line with black paint, markers, watercolor and gesso.

Sometimes Shahn makes a drawing of a sculpture after he makes the sculpture. “I cheat,” he said. “It’s perfectly legal to cheat if it’s art.”

Jonathan Shahn’s Heads in Wood and Plaster is on view at Grounds For Sculpture through Sept. 22.


The Artful Blogger is written by Ilene Dube and offers a look inside the art world of the greater Princeton area. Ilene Dube is an award-winning arts writer and editor, as well as an artist, curator and activist for the arts.


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