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Jennifer L. Shaw is a writer, educator, and art historian. She has recently shifted her focus from writing art history to writing fiction. Her fiction has been supported by grants from Sonoma State University, as well as a writer's residency at ArtsIceland in Isafjordur, Iceland.

Jennifer retired early from her position as Professor of Art History in the Department of Art and Art History at Sonoma State University to pursue fiction writing full time.

She was recently awarded an MFA in Fiction and Literature by the Bennington Writing Seminars. Before becoming a professor, she received a Masters Degree from the Courtauld Institute of Art, London, a PhD from University of California, Berkeley, and a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellowship in the Humanities at Stanford University. She is author of three books of art history and is making final revisions on two novels.

Jennifer was born in San Francisco. She has lived in London and Paris, but the SF Bay Area will always be her home. Jennifer has two children. She currently lives in Berkeley, CA with her husband, her cat Crumble, and her dog Pebble. 

How I came to fiction:


Like many people, I dreamed of being a writer as a child. I still remember the day my second grade teacher copied one of my stories to share with our class. My dream came partially true when I began publishing academic articles and books. But I still yearned to write fiction. I had a plan to interview my mother and write a novel based on her unusual life. (She studied opera and piano at The Julliard School but switched to medicine when stage fright overcame her. She was the first mother of small children to graduate from Columbia University Medical School.)

My mother agreed to be interviewed, but I was busy with teaching, writing, and two children, and had trouble finding the time. Then, I learned that my mother had cancer. Once she was sick, we focussed on other things. 

A few years after my mother died, my brother-in-law was cleaning the last boxes from her garage and found a trove of diaries and documents. The riches included not only my mother's diary and letters, but my grandmother's as well. I learned that my grandmother, who died before I was born, migrated from Iceland to the USA when she was only a toddler. Now I felt compelled to tell my grandmother's story.


The research took me back and back. Looking at Iceland's census data, I discovered that my great grandmother, Helga, had been sent away from her home (and her twin sister )when she was only seven years old. She was forced to live on a distant farm as a tokubarn, a pauper ward of the state. That was the moment the idea for my first novel was born. I would write a story loosely based on my great grandmother Helga's life. Using census data, I was able to trace her life's trajectory from pauper to housemaid to wife of a prominent goldsmith.  I tried to imagine the strength and resilience required for that emotional journey as well as the physical journey from Iceland, to the Dakota Territory, to Seattle. 


When I began this novel, I was still teaching Art History full time. I soon realized that though I loved to teach and write academic books, my true passion was fiction. So I applied for MFA programs and chose the Bennington Writing Seminars as my home. I had the privilege of working with amazing teachers: novelist Katy Simpson Smith,  poet April Bernard and writers Dierdre McNamer and Ben Anastas. I also befitted greatly from the other faculty in the Writing Seminars, and the feedback and support of my peers. After completing the first year of my MFA, I decided to retire early from Sonoma State and write fiction full time. 

I now have two complete novels and I am at work on a third. 



  • Exist Otherwise:  The Life and Works of Claude Cahun, Reaktion Books, London, U.K., May 2017

  • Reading Claude Cahun’s Disavowals, Ashgate/Routledge, December, 2013.

  • Paris and the Countryside:  Modern Life in Late-19th-Century France, (with Gabriel P. Weisberg) Portland Museum of Art, Portland ME, 2006.

  • Dream States: Puvis de Chavannes, Modernism and the Fantasy of France, Yale University Press, March, 2002. 


Articles and Reviews

  • “The Figure of Venus:  Rhetoric of the Ideal from Cabanel to Claude Cahun,” in Venus as Muse from Lucretius to Michel Serres, Rodopi, 2015.

  • “Neonarcissism” in *Nierika* (Mexico City: Universidad Iberoamericana), "La Política Visual del Narcisismo: estudios de casos," Vol. 2, no. 2, May 31, 2013, 19-26.

  •  “Deconstructing Girlhood:  Claude Cahun’s ‘Sophie la Symboliste,’ in Working Girls:  Women’s Cultural Production During the Interwar Years, ed. Paula Birnbaum and Edwin Mellen Press, 2009.

  • “Narcissus and the Magic Mirror” in Don’t Kiss Me:  The Art of Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore, ed. Louise Downie, Tate Publishing, 2006.

  • “Symbolism in Literature, the Visual Arts, and Music,” in New Dictionary of the History of Ideas, ed. Maryanne Cline Horowitz, Charles Scribner Sons, 2005.

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