Inside a Head

Jonathan Shahn is a crank. (It’s safe to write this, because he’s promised he will not read this article, although his wife might.)

That’s not the impression this writer formed, but one the sculptor seems bent on projecting. “Uncooperative” is the word he uses as his facial expression lights up in a smile, from his eyes to a mouth hidden behind a bush of a gray beard.

“Sweet” might be a more apt word to describe his nature, even as he tells a photographer he won’t do what he’s asked. Or “jovial.” He exudes something – call it charm or charisma – that makes his orneriness interesting.

And he’s good at changing the subject, but always to something interesting, such as the up-and-coming neighborhood of Brooklyn where his son lives, or the controversy over a yeshiva that moved into his hometown, Roosevelt, and may be bending zoning regulations.

In a recent e-mail, the photographer Ricardo Barros describes Mr. Shahn as a “truly likeable person.”

“Our conversation had the lopsided rhythm of a wheelbarrow with an out-of-round tire,” he says. “Sometimes it was hard to push forward, and then suddenly it would lurch ahead and pull me off balance. About some things Jonathan had little to say. About others, hard to predict details that he had evidently mulled over for days if not months, he launched into a discourse as if we were in a debate.”

One subject Mr. Shahn won’t go near is that of his famous parents, social activists Ben and Bernarda Bryson Shahn, the photographer/muralist who worked alongside Walker Evans and Diego Rivera, and his painter/illustrator wife. Both are credited with establishing Roosevelt as the arts community it became after the federal government’s failed effort to create farmsteads for New York City’s garment workers during the 1930s. Ben Shahn’s famous mural in the Roosevelt Public School depicts the escape from New York’s dark tenements and sweatshops to Louis Kahn-designed, light-filled homes and cooperative farms and a factory out in the country.

“I don’t have much to say (about them) – they were just artists – and I lost interest in that a long time ago,” the sculptor says congenially.

Mr. Shahn will be having an exhibit of his work in Roosevelt March 20. Which leads one to question, “Why is Roosevelt important to you?” The artist has lived here since he was 2, then left in 1955 to go to Swarthmore College and spent 17 years away, including living in Italy for nearly a decade, before returning to Roosevelt in 1979.

Roosevelt is not especially important to him, he says frankly. “It’s more circumstances that I came (back) and stuck around. It’s OK, but I like cities. I know a lot of people here, but it’s not like I was dreaming of coming back as I traveled the world.”

He gets his fill of city life commuting to New York two days a week to teach sculpture at the Art Students League.

Mr. Shahn’s Roosevelt studio is in the old factory building on Oscar Drive, and in the same building as The Eleanor Gallery. It seems to have an independent heating system, but on a late February day, Mr. Shahn keeps his jacket on and wears a wool cap. Further insulation is provided by a clear plastic tarp along the window wall, and during the conversation, a bird flaps within it, trapped between the tarp and the wall. Mr. Shahn says this happens frequently, and he’s tried to rescue the birds, but they often die before they can be liberated.

The building started as a garment factory, served next as a hat factory, and after that a button factory and a place were geodesic domes were manufactured.

Mr. Shahn excuses himself to take a call from Trenton-based painter Mel Leipzig, who has just completed a portrait of the sculptor and wants to invite him to a party to see it. Mr. Leipzig painted Bernarda Shahn in her Roosevelt studio several years before her death in 2004 at age 101, as well as other Roosevelt artists. He usually spends several days sketching the subject, making a small painting first, and then spends a month or two on the room, ultimately creating a very large canvas.

Mr. Leipzig insists on paying his models, but Mr. Shahn was adamant about not accepting money, and instead negotiated a trade: Mr. Leipzig will sit for him while he makes a sculpture of the painter.

“Jonnie is an extraordinary sculptor – I love to paint his sculpture,” Mr. Leipzig says in a conversation the following day. “More people should know his work.”

Mr. Shahn has been drawing since he was a little boy. Surrounded by artists, it just came naturally, he admits. 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 says.

At Swarthmore, 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 his trademark self-deprecating way. “It must have been a mistake. People didn’t study back then.”

At Hightstown High School, he was a good student, but his classmates at Swarthmore came from what he terms “serious high schools” – the Fieldston School, Bronx High School of Science. After two years at Swarthmore, he was asked to leave. “Our letters crossed in the mail,” he says good-naturedly. “I was ready to leave as well.”

After Swarthmore, 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. “I was not good at neat things,” he says. “That’s why Mel and I get along, because he likes messy places.

“I was interested in sculpture anyway,” he 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. If you see European sculpture in the Metropolitan Museum, you just see a high level of it, but in Italy it’s not segregated – you see everything.”

Mr. Shahn works in clay, then casts it in either plaster or bronze, and he works in wood. Outside his studio door are massive tree trunks that look as if they have just been hauled in.

“Most of the bronze and plaster is done from life, but that’s not practical in wood,” he says. “In wood, I make it up. I don’t use fine quality wood, but trees that people cut down. This is one of the few benefits of being in suburbia, where trees get taken down (for housing developments). At least I can make something out of it.”

Some of his recent commissions include a Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial at the MLK stop of the Hudson-Bergen light rail line in Jersey City. In addition to a four-foot head, there is a large stone slab with benches and bas reliefs, like a mural in bronze. It is broken up into two-foot square sections that tell a story.

There are protests and demonstrations with violent reactions; the situation is worked out with victories, signings and votings and a panel to commemorate those who lost their lives in demonstrations. The words of Martin Luther King Jr. are inscribed: “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor: It must be demanded by the oppressed.”

Mr. Shahn says he doesn’t especially focus on political art. “I do a lot of different things,” he says.

Details of his parents’ lives slip into the conversation through the back door. For example, when discussing his son’s move from the Carroll Gardens section of Brooklyn to Ditmas Park (Jasper isn’t an artist, he’s not a scientist, Mr. Shahn is not certain of his exact title; “He’s just a guy who is literate, who can write, and he assists the director of post-doctoral research at City College”), he mentions that Jasper had looked at apartments in the Williamsburg section, and how nice it would have been for him to have lived there because that’s where his grandfather grew up.

“He emigrated there when he was 8 years old in 1906,” Mr. Shahn says of his father. “He would swim in the East River and stay out all night. Then, at 13 or 14, he apprenticed to a printer in Manhattan.” Beyond that, “you can read about my parents in a book.”

Mr. Shahn speaks highly of the photographer Ricardo Barros, who has included Mr. Shahn in his book, Facing Sculpture (2004). Mr. Shahn shows a photograph Mr. Barros took of him, in which one sees mostly a sea of sculpted faces. Look real closely, and there’s Mr. Shahn’s head at the back, looking just like another piece of sculpture. “It’s like finding Waldo,” says Mr. Shahn.

“Shahn is haunted by the possibilities of the portrait – by the features of the face in front of him as well as by faces he carries in his inner vision,” writes Mr. Barros. “He may work on several portraits at once, compelled to move from one to another… Shahn may give his visions solid form, but he does not take from them their mystery.”

Art critic Edmund Leites has written: “The grandeur is captured without lying. In other words, he doesn’t make faces more beautiful or dramatic… Perhaps this is the secret of Shahn’s success: plain, even awkward, sculpture that reveals the grandness in the everyday.”

“The life of the mind can be thought to take place in a room, in a studio, in the branches of a tree, but actually it takes place inside a head,” writes the sculptor Meredith Bergmann in the introductory essay to a 2002 catalog produced by the O’Hara Gallery in New York City, where Mr. Shahn had a solo exhibit. “Jonathan Shahn gives us sculptures of heads that are full of thought and full of life. Some of them are mysterious, reticent and modest, like the artist. An unusual man, Shahn claims that his work is more interesting than he is.”

Mr. Shahn’s sculpting technique includes drawing on the wood. “When carving wood, I draw where I want to do the cutting, and I like the way it looks so I draw on my own work.” The result is the natural wood appears as aged patina, and the drawing marks look like places where the patina has worn away.

In one corner of the studio is a community of little plaster heads, and on the wall behind them, preliminary sketches for their existence. Do these little figures ever talk to the artist?

“Of course not, they’re plaster,” he replies without pause.

When asked how the people of Roosevelt have inspired him for this exhibit, he responds “They’re just people I know. Though a lot of the Roosevelt community will recognize them, and want to see who is no longer living, I think of it as like the work of Egon Schiele or Matisse – you don’t know the people, but the drawings tell you about them. It could be any town.”

The Roosevelt Arts Project will hold a one day event combining an exhibition by Jonathan Shahn, consisting of self portraits, drawings, prints, sculpture and a  few paintings, covering more than 50 years of work.  Along with this exhibition will be shown a new film by composer/filmmaker Wiska Radkiewicz, also of Roosevelt, documenting the various stages in the creation of Shahn’s monument to Martin Luther King, Jr., in Jersey City, NJ.

The exhibition will be held  March 20, noon until 5 p.m. at the Factory (Action Packaging) on the corner of Oscar Drive and North Valley Road  in Roosevelt, NJ.  The film will be projected repeatedly during the same time at the same location. The entrance for both is on the North Valley Road end of the building. There is no admission charge although contributions to the Roosevelt Arts Project  will be accepted.


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One Response to Inside a Head

  1. A wonderful, fascinating interview!

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