Ashley Bryan

Making Art on a Maine Island

The Monday morning boat from Northeast Harbor has a full complement of passengers. A man with a skateboard and a timid Chihuahua hangs out on the stern, near several boxes of groceries destined for Great and Little Cranberry Islands. In the cabin, an island schoolteacher sips a cup of coffee, her laptop computer in a black case beside her. The benches are crowded with people who are making a reverse commute from Mount Desert Island via the Beal and Bunker Mail Boat and Ferry. As the vessel cuts through the looking-glass ocean, trailed by a wake of glinting sunlight, it is easy to understand why the internationally acclaimed artist and children’s book author Ashley Bryan has made a Maine island his home.

Bryan has published 50 books in the past five decades. He has won multiple Coretta Scott King Awards, a Newbery Honor award earlier this year for Freedom Over Me, and the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award in 2009 for his lasting contribution to children’s literature. But people on the mail boat know him simply as their neighbor: Bryan has lived in Cranberry Isles full time since his retirement from teaching at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, in 1988.

After cruising past Sutton Island and stopping to let the majority of the passengers off at Great Cranberry, the boat docks at Little Cranberry, which holds the village of Islesford (winter population: 65). Street signs are absent from the handful of quiet thoroughfares that transect this 200- acre island. Walking past a city block’s worth of landlocked lobster traps and an open field, we find Bryan’s house tucked around a corner, beside a garden cart labeled “Choice Potatoes.”

Bryan’s assistant, Jasmine Samuel, opens the door. The 93-year-old artist is immediately behind her, his arms open and his eyes bright. “When someone asks me what is the most important thing, I’ve always said it’s this moment being with you,” says Bryan, greeting photographer Matt Cosby and Love Maine Radio audio producer Spencer Albee. “Because that is what my day will be.”

Bryan’s gray-shingled house is crowded with artifacts of a life well lived. Letters from grateful children are stacked on bookcases. Fanciful mobiles and model airplanes pirouette in the air above us. Samuel, who also owns a permaculture farm on the island, has brewed coffee for us. The 1992 Maine Library Association Lupine Award for Bryan’s book Sing to the Sun hangs above a kitchen table set with cookies and dessert bread. “Hospitality is important to Ashley,” explains Samuel. “This is Ashley’s way.”

Born in Harlem, New York, in 1923, Bryan was the second of six children. His parents’ families came from the Caribbean island of Antigua. His father was a printer by trade and kept a houseful of birds as pets; his mother loved to sing and made clothing for her children. Bryan still has the scissors she once used. “During the Depression so much was done by hand in the home,” says Bryan, who grew up in the Bronx. “For the family— my sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles—presents were always something that I created.” Bryan made his first foray into literature while still in kindergarten, with an ABC book. “I have never stopped making books,” he says.

Bryan is a persuasive storyteller. His words become louder, then softer, then louder again—as if he is entertaining an entire crowd of children. He has deep gratitude for those who have paved his way. “My teachers from elementary, junior, and high school—all white teachers—encouraged me, gave me material…I have never forgotten that,” he says. Bryan, who never married,
has returned the favor many times over, encouraging students to follow their dreams. In 2011, the Islesford Elementary School was renamed the Ashley Bryan School. Last year, 14 students in kindergarten through eighth grade attended classes there.

Pushing himself up from the wooden kitchen chair, Bryan retrieves a brochure about stained glass windows that he designed and created. Depicting the life of Jesus, they are now located at the Islesford Congregational Church. As a child, Bryan saw the glowing stained glass in the windows of St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church near his home and told his mother, “I’d like to go to that great big pretty church.” She obliged, and the family became part of the congregation. In the back room of Bryan’s house, several unfinished window panels lie on a table; a family of oversized handmade puppets keeps watch. Bryan has a love of found objects— especially those rescued from the nearby beach. He has incorporated well-worn pieces of sea glass into his windows; the puppets are formed from items like fishing net and seashells. “I’ve always enjoyed re-creating from what’s thrown away,” says Bryan.

Bryan was once in danger of being thrown away himself. After he graduated from high school at the age of 16, an art school refused him. “They said it would be a waste to give a scholarship to a colored person,” says Bryan. “They explained that there would be no place in the field of graphic arts, where I would be employed.” After this rejection, he spent a year teaching younger children at his former school, and then tried his luck at a different institution. This time, the selective Cooper Union admitted him, providing a tuition-free education.

In 1943, Bryan was drafted at the age of 19 and became a stevedore in the 502nd Port Battalion of the U.S. Army. He and his segregated unit trained in Boston and Glasgow, eventually landing at Normandy on D-Day. He served through the end of World War II. After the war, Bryan returned to Cooper Union to complete his degree. Although his hair is now gray, and his fingers laced with wrinkles, his voice carries traces of the young soldier he once was. “I was so spun around by the disasters and the sufferings of war that I said I must find out why man chooses war,” says Bryan. He went to Columbia University to do graduate work in philosophy. “Of course I didn’t get more answers, I got more questions,” he says. Bryan has made peace with this lack of clarity. “It’s like Socrates said, ‘The unexamined life is not worth living,’” quotes Bryan. “You’re always asking questions of yourself and everything.”

After Columbia, Bryan’s pursuit of the examined life took him to the University
of Marseille at Aix-en-Provence in France, using money from the G.I. Bill. He later returned to Europe on a two-year Fulbright grant to study at the University of Freiburg in Germany. He slides easily into the words of that German poet Rainer Maria Rilke: “‘Weisst du, ich will mich schleichen leise aus lautem Kreis…’” The syllables are like the soft rush of a waterfall tumbling over pebbles as they leave his lips. “’Understand, I’ll slip quietly away from the noisy crowd,’” he translates. “It’s lovely, it’s so lovely…You can’t translate the sound of a language,” muses Bryan. “You can translate the feeling and the mood, but it won’t sound the same.”

After completing his education, Bryan went on to teach at multiple institutions, including Queens College in New York and Dartmouth College. “Anything you can do that can stimulate the imagination of another…is the most exciting thing you can do as an artist,” says Bryan. “It encourages you, yourself.” He first became familiar with Maine in 1946, while visiting Mount Desert Island on a summer scholarship with the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, and began spending summers in the Cranberry Isles when he was teaching.

Bryan continued to create his own art, but had difficulty getting a book published. “The book world was focused mainly on the white, Anglo-Saxon child,” says Bryan. “Others were not represented.” His first “trade” published illustrations were created for Black Boy by Richard Wright in 1946 (a book that would not be published until 1950 by World Publishing Company). Then, in 1965, an educator named Nancy Larrick wrote a piece called “The All-White World of Children’s Books” for the Saturday Review. This article convinced publishers that change was necessary. An editor at Atheneum Books, Jean Karl, took a chance on Bryan and arranged for him to begin working more consistently in the field. He would go on to illustrate other books, including Moon, For What Do You Wait?, a book based on the poetry of Bengali Nobel Prize-winning author Rabindranath Tagore, in 1967. “I had known of his poems,” says Bryan. “They were written to be sung—very simple and beautiful. I loved doing art for it.” He wrote his first book for children, African Tales, in 1965.

After his retirement from teaching, Bryan focused his efforts on writing and illustrating. His books offer stories that beg to be told. Pulling out a copy of Walk Together Children (2002), he runs his fingers over the illustrated musical score for the spiritual “Swing Low Sweet Chariot.” “Blacks were not allowed to learn to read or write,” says Bryan. “But they would hear these Bible stories, and they incorporated those stories into creating these songs.” Bryan nearly breaks into song himself as he pages past illustrations for “He’s Got the Whole World in his Hands” and “This Little Light of Mine.” “I just love the imagination and the vocabulary of black slaves,” says Bryan. “That’s why I worked to honor them.”

Bryan weaves music and words into public presentations as well. Using a poem by Langston Hughes, he asks people to repeat it after him like the call and response of children in a school assembly. “When I go to give a program and there’s an audience of adults, I have a direct connection with them,” says Bryan. “They have all survived childhood, just as I have, so I’m going to tap back to that experience of the child in each one of them.”

Bryan has continued to travel, despite health issues last winter that necessitated a two-month stay at a Portland rehabilitation facility. In April he spent a week in Atlanta, where the High Museum of Art had opened an exhibition of his work. While he was there the Alliance Theatre Teen Ensemble performed a reading from Freedom Over Me (2016), a book inspired by slave documents Bryan found ten years ago at an auction in Northeast Harbor. “[The students] not only caught the spirit [of the book], but they developed their own spirit and relation to it, which made it so exciting,” says Bryan. Bryan remains avidly curious. Samuel tells us that Bryan requires additional luggage room for the many books he brings with him when he travels. His shelves at home are like the stacks of a winter woodpile. “I try not to have favorites about anything,” says Bryan. “At one point, I may need a Shakespearean sonnet. Another time I want an Edna St. Vincent Millay poem. It varies.” During a break in the conversation, Bryan takes a few moments to sit by his tiny woodstove and read from a book of poetry, his hands cradling the yellow cover. Bryan is currently illustrating a book featuring the nursery rhymes of nineteenth-century English poet Christina Rossetti. “The poem that I always remember as a child was ‘Who Has Seen the Wind?’” says Bryan. “‘Neither I nor you, but when the leaves hang trembling, the wind is passing through.’”

Bryan has collected and cultivated what might otherwise have been forgotten. He is beloved, yet thoroughly humble. In 2013, a small group of his friends and family created The Ashley Bryan Center to preserve and protect Ashley’s work. “You’ll have to ask them about that,” Bryan says. “That’d be the last thing in the world for me to do. But I was very touched that they wanted what I’ve been doing to go further.”

Retracing our steps to the mail boat, my colleagues and I take a detour past the two-room schoolhouse that bears Bryan’s name and hear the conversations of children tumbling out the open window to mingle with spring birdsong. We stop at Islesford Congregational Church to admire the panels of sea glass reflecting colored sunbeams onto the wooden pews. Bryan’s advice echoes in our memories: “Anything you’re doing that’s creative, stay with it, no matter what. Don’t let anybody tell you, you’re no good at it, or you won’t make a living doing it. If it’s something you love to do, that’s how you get to know who you are.”