Bernarda Bryson was born on March 7, 1905, in Athens, Ohio. Her father was an editor and publisher with liberal political leanings. Her mother, descended from a family who had been among the first settlers of Ohio, was a professor of Latin. Early in life, Bryson developed a deep interest in social problems. This impulse led her into a brief membership in the Communist Party in the early 1930s. She had by this time married Victor Parks in 1927 and divorced him in 1930. Bryson's other early interest was in the graphic arts. Pursuing a career in this field, she moved to New York in 1932 and met the noted artist Ben Shahn, whom she married in 1935. The couple had three children.
Although Bryson lived somewhat in the shadow of her famous and often controversial husband, she achieved a deserved reputation as an illustrator and writer. Her considerable education— she attended Ohio University, Ohio State University, (Case) Western Reserve University, and the New School for Social Research—prepared her for the various literary and artistic projects that occupied most of her professional life. Apart from teaching etching and lithography, Bryson created print drawings for Fortune, Harper's, Scientific American, and other leading periodicals.
Bryson illustrated many other writers' books and won several awards for her efforts, but will probably best be remembered for the creations that blended both her literary and artistic talents. Bryson preferred reading poetry to prose and was particularly fond of poetic epics, such as Gilgamesh. The high quality of her prose has been widely recognized, and excerpts from her version of Gilgamesh can be found in a number of anthologies of children's literature. Two of her books, The Twenty Miracles of Saint Nicolas and Gilgamesh, were included among the best fifty books of their publication years by the American Institute of Graphic Arts.
Ben Shahn died in 1960. In the following years, Bryson made a penetrating study of her late husband's art, resulting in a monumental book, Ben Shahn, which was published in 1973. Bryson still resides in Roosevelt, New Jersey, where she and Shahn lived for many years.