Transcription of The Art of Ashley Bryan #292

Male Announcer: You are listening to Love Maine Radio, hosted by Dr. Lisa Belisle and recorded at the studios of Maine Magazine in Portland. Dr. Lisa Belisle is a writer and physician who practices family medicine and acupuncture in Brunswick, Maine. Show summaries are available at Here are some highlights from this week’s program.
Ashley Bryan: I asked for permission to attend the Glasgow School of Art when we were in Glasgow. I was in a battalion of longshoremen, stevedores. We handled all the cargo that backs up an army. And that was how, in the invasion, we were on the beach of Normandy. And there’s this flotilla of cargo ships, and they had developed the amphibious dock, which was a boat in the water, a truck on land. So they could use a beach as a port, whereas the enemy had controlled Le Havre and Manche.
Lisa Belisle: This is Dr. Lisa Belisle and you are listening to Love Maine Radio, show number 292, The Art of Ashley Bryan, airing for the first time on Sunday, April 23, 2017. Artist Ashley Bryan has been creating unique works since his earliest days growing up in the Bronx. Known for his award-winning children’s books, like Beautiful Blackbird and Freedom Over Me, Ashley Bryan has connected with an audience of all ages. For this special show, we traveled to Little Cranberry Island, off the coast of Mount Desert Island, to interview this 93-year-old artist in his own home. Thank you for joining us.
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Lisa Belisle: It is my great pleasure to be, today, on Little Cranberry Island, right off the coast of Maine. This is something that we don’t get to do very often. But we’ve made a special trip out here to spend time with Ashley Bryan, who is a really world-renowned artist and someone who’s pretty special. We’ve heard a lot about you, Ashley. We’re really lucky to be here.
Ashley Bryan: Good. Good you could visit.
Lisa Belisle: You have this house that is, it’s filled with…
Ashley Bryan: Yes.
Lisa Belisle: Wonderful things you’ve collected overtime.
Ashley Bryan: Yes. Well, it’s just my response to the ingenuity and the creativity of people throughout the world. It doesn’t matter what the material; if it’s something I respond to, I bring it home. And I put it up where I can enjoy it.
Lisa Belisle: Where are some of the places that you’ve traveled, that you’ve picked some of these things up?
Ashley Bryan: Well, the European countries of France, Germany, Spain, Italy, traveled through there. And then further in Java and in other countries as well. In South America, mainly traveled though in Africa, in Kenya and in South Africa, doing work with a program that builds schools for children and brings books and supplies, a foundation, Children’s Literature for Children, out of Atlanta that has done enormous work with these schools in Kenya. Yes, through Mount Kenya Academy, a wonderful private school that a black woman directs.
Lisa Belisle: And you’re wearing something that is from Africa.
Ashley Bryan: This is one of the vests that was made for me by the Copenhagen Embroiderers, but they do very beautiful work that’s practical, bags and pot holders and simple wall hangings.
Lisa Belisle: How did you get involved with their organization?
Ashley Bryan: Well, I met the director, a Dominican Sister, Sister Shelia Flynn and she was such a wonderful person. This one, I never let anyone get. I’ve always held on to that elephant. I loved it.
Lisa Belisle: So you have an embroidered elephant.
Ashley Bryan: These are one of their bags. You see that.
Lisa Belisle: We have these lovely blue and black bags.
Ashley Bryan: But you can see how beautiful the designs are, and these are some small forms. I gave Jasmine one of the angels and said she was an angel.
Lisa Belisle: Jasmine is an angel. She’s also a farmer here on the island.
Ashley Bryan: And these little handy purses for your….
Lisa Belisle: Do these get sold? And are these things that the women are creating to be sold?
Ashley Bryan: Yes. I always bring a lot, and I sell them and then I send them. I’m always contributing so they can keep on going, so all of these are for sale. Let’s see. They’re such modest prices generally when you consider they’re the artist’s real work.
Lisa Belisle: And they’re beautiful colors. Colors are very important to you.
Ashley Bryan: Yes, the colors scented one, often they have a picture of the person and then they.
Lisa Belisle: Tell me about the idea of creating something. You have….
Ashley Bryan: Well, it’s essential. The desire to create and anything you can do that can stimulate the imagination of another from what you do to do something of his or her own, is the most exciting thing you can do as an artist. Inspire others to something of their own, not something they bought, but something that they themselves have created. A birthday comes up, rather than buying a card, they draw the card themselves or they make something to give or there’s a song they’ll sing in the present or a poem they love. Anything, but something out of yourself. Anything that you can do that can inspire people, to tap that source in yourself is the most exciting thing you have to offer.
Lisa Belisle: What is that source? What is that source?
Ashley Bryan: That comes from just the essential desire in life, the whole mystery of being is creation. How it came about. How all of this comes about and because of that, artists have always wanted to recreate in that inspiration of what creation has given us. The desire to follow that inspiration, that source.
That mystery and wonder of the morning, you don’t take it for granted. Look, the light has come into the day. You celebrate it. It’s a tremendous gift. I like the remark of a man who had been in solitary confinement, in prison for over 30 years. He came out and he was with a group of people. It started to rain and they got all excited. He said, “What are you getting excited about? It’s rain. It’s a gift of God.”
He had been indoors, closed in. The rain coming down was him a gift of God, so I love that story of how excited and happy he was. The others were running to find a place to shelter themselves, to clothe themselves, but you know.
Lisa Belisle: So there is something important about being open?
Ashley Bryan: Yes. Yes, but I think that spirit of wanting to open up for others, something of that essential joy in life because there’s so much that beats us down, that makes us feel unhappy or unresponsive, but anything that gives us that tap, that energy of what creation means. The excitement of things that come about and never to lose that.
When the small group of people decided they’d create an Ashley Bryan Center, they said they want to do an exhibit to let people know so they ask me to do certain things, but one of the important words for me on it was when one of the columns that says, one of the most tragic experiences in life is the death of a child, so never let the child within you die, so that’s it.
Lisa Belisle: But children are very important to you. You’ve been doing children’s books for years now.
Ashley Bryan: Yes. Well, getting to children is vital. Children need encouragement and support. Everyone does, but it’s very important that you encourage the child, and so I like any outreach that will engage me with them.
When I came back they had some letters. They were these crazy letters from children. They were all drawings and things and said how much they loved my work, but it’s that engaging of the child that is important to me.
Lisa Belisle: What about when you were a child? When you were growing up in the Bronx?
Ashley Bryan: Yes. Always encouraged in art. All of my teachers from elementary, junior, and high school, all white teachers, all encouraged me, with the depression years. They only wanted to advance my love of art. I’ve never forgotten that, and it was those teachers that made it possible for me to go on because when I graduated, my portfolio was not accepted when they saw me, but they told me about a program where they don’t see you when you take the exam. The Cooper Union, and so that was how I was able to go further through that scholarship because it was free tuition.
Lisa Belisle: When you say they don’t see you, it’s because it’s….
Ashley Bryan: No, because it’s an exam given in the great hall. They have an exercise in drawing, an exercise in sculpture. You bring a bar of plastered seen clay and the third exercise in architecture and when you complete that, you put it on the tray and then it’s put on the platform of the great hall. It has your name, address and things and later the professors come down and they assess the work and select those, and I was fortunate in being one of those accepted.
Lisa Belisle: And this was Cooper Union?
Ashley Bryan: The Cooper Union School of Art and Engineering.
Lisa Belisle: But before that, you weren’t accepted. Before that….
Ashley Bryan: Before that, two other schools that I went, they said it would be a waste to give a scholarship to a colored person. Now that’s New York City, 1940, when I graduated high school at 16. They told me that and they explained that there’d be no place in the field of graphic arts where I would be employed, so it would be a waste. You wouldn’t be able to get a job. So they not only denied me, but they told me why, you know.
Lisa Belisle: And this is when you were 16 years old?
Ashley Bryan: Yes. Yes.
Lisa Belisle: Somebody started to tell you that you weren’t going to be good enough because of the color of your skin.
Ashley Bryan: But I knew that I always would be drawing and painting, but I didn’t know how I would go on, but it’s through those high school teachers who called me back and said, “Look, help us on the yearbook and do any other classes you like. In the summer, take the exam for the Cooper Union, they do not see you there.” That was it, but it made all the difference in my going on.
Lisa Belisle: You have quite an education beyond Cooper Union, you also went to Columbia. You also had a Fulbright Scholarship.
Ashley Bryan: Yes. Yes.
Lisa Belisle: And you went to Europe and went to two different schools in Europe.
Ashley Bryan: Yes.
Lisa Belisle: So somehow you got through.
Ashley Bryan: And even in the Army, I asked for permission to attend the Glasgow School of Art when were in Glasgow. I was in a battalion of longshoremen, stevedores. We handled all the cargo that backs up an Army and that was how in the invasion, we were on the beach of Normandy and there was this flotilla of cargo ships and they had developed the amphibious duck, which was a boat in the water, a truck on land.
So they could use a beach as a port where the enemy had controlled the Le Havre and Manche, but the beach served as the port and we served unloading the ships across the beach into the amphibious duck. Then the duck would go on. We’d get out and backup the invading army, and that’s how they finally pushed through to Paris and took over France. And that was when the Nazis began to lose power.
Lisa Belisle: You were drafted when you were 19.
Ashley Bryan: Yes. Yes.
Lisa Belisle: To serve in Army for WWII.
Ashley Bryan: I was at the Cooper Union in my third year and then when I came home, I completed the work, but was so spun around by the disasters that, the sufferings of war. That I said I must find out why man chooses war as understanding anything. Of course, I didn’t get more answers, I got more questions, but I did register in philosophy at Cooper Union’s and studied the years.
Lisa Belisle: What have you learned since then? What have you learned in the years that have come since WWII….
Ashley Bryan: Well, I’ve learned simply the importance of questioning. Of always asking questions about everything. It’s like Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”
You’re always asking questions of yourself and everything and never lose that and evaluating and keeping that sense of being open.
Lisa Belisle: What are some of the questions that you’ve asked over time?
Ashley Bryan: Who am I? Where do I come from? What am I here for? That’s endless. Who gets answers?
Lisa Belisle: You don’t feel as if you’ve actually gotten any answers from this?
Ashley Bryan: But it plunges you when you’re doing the painting. That’s going to explain everything about me. Who I am? I’m going to get it this time and you work for it.
At times, you look at it and say, what am I doing out here? There’s nothing of what I’m looking at, but I couldn’t do it without standing in front of the plant and trying to get something of the spirit of what I’m experiencing.
But it’s always that desire, which is fundamental of the experience of being. I mean, some people may take it for granted, but sometime I look up when someone’s walking by and say, so that’s how they do it. It’s one foot and then another foot. It’s like I’m just discovering something, like it’s brand new.
(Whispered) Never lose, but I said the sad experience of the child, so never lose the child within you. Never let that child within you die.
When I go to give a program and there’s an audience of adults, I look out. I have a direct connection with them. 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 and ask them to help me through that.
Lisa Belisle: How do you do that?
Ashley Bryan: I say everybody has been put down for one reason or another, but we’ve got to sing out a love of who you are. Everybody. My people. And they chant back. My People by Langston Hughes. And I have them chanting with me as a child would, and I say the word, “The night is beautiful” and they say, “So are the faces of my people.” They know it all over, wherever I go. They know I’m going to chant “my people” to affirm a love of who you are and of your ancestry.
Lisa Belisle: You spent many years teaching and….
Ashley Bryan: Yes. I love teaching to all the. In fact, when I did my early teens, the St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, they gave me the room and supplies to teach others because of my love of art. They say you have a talent, you must share it with others. So right off, I knew that it was my love of art that I wanted to share with others. That’s when I knew that’s what I would go on to do. But it was through the support of the church and giving me the materials and the time to work with others so that’s how I was always known, as the teacher.
Lisa Belisle: How did that, being a teacher and you also, you taught at Dartmouth.
Ashley Bryan: Yes.
Lisa Belisle: Dartmouth was your final teaching experience.
Ashley Bryan: Yes.
Lisa Belisle: How did that influence your creativity and your work as an artist.
Ashley Bryan: Well, I get the excitement of working with others and that picks up your spirits, when you see others at work with something you love to do, it encourages you yourself. It means an awful lot. Yes.
Lisa Belisle: Tell me about the first book that you published. Tell me what that was like.
Ashley Bryan: Oh, that’s easy, my first book, kindergarten. As we learned the alphabet, we created the picture for each letter, A, B, C. When we reach Z, the teacher gave us colored paper and we sewed the pages together and she said, “You have just published an alphabet book. You are the author, the illustrator, the binder. Take it home. You’re the distributor as well.” And when we came, she says, “How was it received?” Well, everyone was so excited. I published a book. Kindergarten. I published a book. So the teacher said, “Well, you are getting rave reviews for those limited editions, one of a kind.”
I have never stopped making books from kindergarten on. For the family, my sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles presents were always something that I created a little book. A poem that I like, something they like. I would do that so it never ended. It was just that I couldn’t get into the field.
Lisa Belisle: Well, tell me about that.
Ashley Bryan: Well, that was when, although the United States means people from all over the world, the book world was focused mainly on the white Anglo-Saxon child and others were not represented and there was that push, which came out after that article, “The All-White World of Children’s Books,” to represent the gifts of other peoples, of people who they came from, who they would like to also express. Even though they didn’t hold it against anyone doing a book of people of their country, they also wanted a voice offering things of their people, and I wanted an offer something of the black voice and to work with the black images also.
Lisa Belisle: You showed me the first book that you published, and it was based on poetry.
Ashley Bryan: Was based on?
Lisa Belisle: Poetry.
Ashley Bryan: Yes, well, poetry is at the heart of everything I do. Poetry, the spirituals, but I’ve always loved poetry. In fact when I use my Fulbright abroad, it was to Germany, not just because of the church, which I’d grown up, but I loved the poetry of Rainer Marie Rilke, who wrote in German and I wanted to learn to speak some of his language through the poems. (Speaking German poetry.) Do you know when they all slip away from this noisy circle? I love the beginning of a poem because at college I was often at these meetings, you just sit and they go on and on. Think oh, I’m going to get out of this one day.
There’s a poem of his, which began with those lines. “Do you know, one day, I’ll slip away from this noisy circle, but the feeling of the voice…. (Speaking German poetry.) When I see the star blooming above the oak tree. (Speaking German poetry.) I will choose paths that were very rarely trod in the pale evening meadows, but there’s no dream like this. You will go with me.”
It’s lovely. It’s so lovely, but in the language, you can’t translate the sound of a language. You can translate the feeling of the mood, and so I love poetry by poets of other countries whose languages I don’t know because I can get the feeling, but the sounds you cannot translate.
You can say one day, do you know I’ll slip away. (Speaking German poetry.) It’s a whole ‘nother world of sound to get that into English, very rarely has that been done. Perhaps, with people have always loved The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. It was such a popular translation, was so well done, that they felt it was very close to the sounds of the language, in the language from which it was translated.
Lisa Belisle: Talk to me about music. Music is important to you as well.
Ashley Bryan: Yes. Yes, I’ve always had music that I’ve played. Of course, the whole classical tradition. When I arrived with my G.I. Bill to study in Europe and France, 1950, it was a year that the great cellist Pablo Casals broke his silence.
After the war, he had said he would not perform in any of the allied countries because he felt they had abetted Franco in overturning the People’s Revolution, but in 1950, a number of great musicians persuaded him to play honoring Bach and he said, “If you come to this little dusty town in which I live.” And it’s a little town, it was just across the border from Barcelona, where they spoke the Catalan language that he’d grown up with, Prades. P-r-a-d-e-s and so the first concert in 1950 was in Prades and I had just arrived with my G.I. Bill in Aix-en-Provence, so of course I went to it and people who loved him had offered the money for all the tickets. So we as students never paid for anything. All the concerts were open to us, and it was such an incredible experience.
Lisa Belisle: You’ve also incorporated spirituals into your work.
Ashley Bryan: The spirituals. Well, that’s a whole other world because, you see, blacks were not allowed to learn to read or write, but they would hear these Bible stories and they incorporated those stories in creating these songs. “Didn’t my Lord deliver Daniel” and “Why not every man?” “When Israel was in Egypt land, let my people go.” “He’s got the whole world in His hand.” “This little light of mine,” and I just loved the imagination and the vocabulary of black slaves creating that music, and that’s why I work to honor them in those books, where I took the time in cutting the blocks and the music to give the feeling of the early religious books, which were cut in that way.
Lisa Belisle: Some of these books that you’ve done, the block print books with the spirituals in them.
Ashley Bryan: The block print ones.
Lisa Belisle: Yes, they’ve been republished.
Ashley Bryan: Yes, they’re in print.
Lisa Belisle: Why did they choose to bring them back? Why did they choose to [crosstalk 00:24:14].
Ashley Bryan: Because of the demand. People have been buying them. That’s with the book world. It’s only if they’re buying your books that they come back for a second printing or a third. Generally, my books will go three or four printings and then they’re no longer printed and they may then be in what you have, the reduced price area. But my books, they’ve gone on.
The most popular one has been What a Wonderful World, the Louis Armstrong song. That’s over 30-something printings. It keeps going because many adults identify with Satchmo and they just love his music and so they bought it.
Lisa Belisle: Is there a reason why the block prints, though, the spirituals. Is there a reason why you think people have [crosstalk 00:25:05]?
Ashley Bryan: Well, I use spirituals in one, but in one of them I use collage. And in another one, let’s see. I don’t know if we have them all here and I painted also. I’ve done different approaches. I’ve done all the art approaches that I know to get them across.
Lisa Belisle: I have a couple of books in front of me that I found in a bookstore in Bar Harbor, actually. Sherman’s. And one of them is this book Can’t Scare Me.
Ashley Bryan: Yeah, I loved doing that. That’s an old folk tale, but I gave it the twist that this boy who is not afraid of anything when the giant began to sing, then he really knew terror, what that meant. So no, but the thing is the child is at a test. He’s got himself into trouble. How will he get out of it now? He has to use his own ingenuity to get out of trouble so he does. By getting the maid to dance, and then he runs away and runs right back into his grandma’s arms.
Lisa Belisle: And this book is very colorful and this one’s done in a very different way than the block one.
Ashley Bryan: Yes, these are paintings, using the tempera paints that are very common with the children. They often have the jars of color oils. They pour them into the muffin tins, red, yellow, blue, white, black and they work best this kind of paint. I do this with these.
Lisa Belisle: But you’ve used lots of different types of medium.
Ashley Bryan: Yes, and also styles of approach. The Dancing Granny was pen and ink drawings. Yes, and then they vary.
Lisa Belisle: Some artists seem to like one type….
Ashley Bryan: Yes.
Lisa Belisle: Of style, and some artists do more than one. You do lots of different things.
Ashley Bryan: I draw up on the whole history of art, which I love when I’m doing a book, I decide the direction. Then I stay with that. But there are artists who’ve established a certain style and approach, and they apply it to everything they do, but they make it relevant and new each time. It’s just that once you see one of their books, you know all of them because they’ll follow that approach in their art, but they’re wonderful artists, but mine, every book varies another approach.
Lisa Belisle: Last year you published Freedom Over Me.
Ashley Bryan: I am so glad people have responded to Freedom Over Me. Yes.
Lisa Belisle: Tell us about that book.
Ashley Bryan: This was the one where I got these slave documents at an auction in Northeast Harbor, and I had been looking through them for over ten years and then finally I pulled out the one that is used in the book. And it had eleven slaves for sale, with just the name and a price, and I gave them a job like a carpenter or a cook or seamstress or whatever, and I tried to recreate their lives and also if they were free, what would their hopes be? So that’s how this’d be and there’s been a great response to this and I say that’s an award from Kent that just came, and it’s for the Freedom Over Me book.
It says on it. It’s heavy, so….
Lisa Belisle: This is very heavy, so this is the 2017 Arnold Adolph Poetry Award for Middle Readers, Freedom Over Me, Ashley Bryan.
Ashley Bryan: Yes.
Lisa Belisle: “The struggle continues.” That’s what this says. This is from Kent State.
Ashley Bryan: Yes. Kent State. Yeah, Virginia Hamilton, a wonderful black artist wrote there later on as a poet, and her husband, he sent it. He’s a good friend, but that program awarded Freedom Over Me. So that came in the mail. Just opened it this morning.
Lisa Belisle: You’ve also gotten other important awards like….
Ashley Bryan: Yes.
Lisa Belisle: The Laura Ingalls Wilder and Coretta Scott King.
Ashley Bryan: Yes.
Lisa Belisle: You’ve been in consideration for Newberry Honors.
Ashley Bryan: You see the plate up there? That’s the Lupine Award, that the Maine authors, and they’ve given that Lupine Award to Freedom Over Me. That comes up later in the month.
Lisa Belisle: So you’ve gotten more than one award from the main group that gives this Lupine Award.
Ashley Bryan: Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Means a lot when the librarians respond and open up your work ‘cause they’re in touch with a wide audience of young people, so it’s wonderful when they recognize what you’ve done and want to honor it. And so they’ve recognized Freedom Over Me and have given it the Lupine Award for this year.
Lisa Belisle: You’ve been connected to Maine for a while.
Ashley Bryan: Oh, for many years, yes.
Lisa Belisle: You went to the Skowhegan School.
Ashley Bryan: Skowhegan School of Art, yes.
Lisa Belisle: And that was one of your first connections.
Ashley Bryan: That was in 1960.
Lisa Belisle: So how did you find out about this part of Maine?
Ashley Bryan: Well at Skowhegan on weekends we’d go often to Acadia. From Acadia, you look out over the ocean, you see all these islands, so I asked the maid, find a place near one of these islands. That’s how I came to Great Cranberry Island first, then moved over to this island and then built the house and settled in here. But I’d stayed at another house across the way over there, over 30 years when I come. Then I had this for my own when I decided I’d be leaving Dartmouth, and I’d live here rather than returning to New York.
Lisa Belisle: This island has other artists who live here as well. Why does Little Cranberry Island, why is it so appealing to artists?
Ashley Bryan: Well, it’s a small community, about 60 people year round. Well, when you’ve known people like that also for generations, you feel very much at home, and there’s that outreach of a small community. If anything you need, they’re there. Often I’ll come home, there’s a plate of food on the table, no name, just sitting there. But it’s that spirit of the small community. And I’ve always loved the people of the island, of how open they are and how generous.
Lisa Belisle: Is it ever hard to be here in the middle of the winter?
Ashley Bryan: Whatever, the weather doesn’t affect me. Oh, no. Nobody comes near me in winter time, but I love it. People shy away from Maine in winter, and my niece was helping out who had left. She was working along with Jasmine. She came from Asheville, North Carolina, when I was at the Cedar’s Rehab in Portland and then she came here. And oh, what an introduction to life in Maine. I don’t think she’ll do that again, but she had a shovel most of the time. ‘Course the snow was so persistent. Every time you thought it had ended, it would come again. She was out there shoveling.
Lisa Belisle: How does being in Maine, how does that impact your art?
Ashley Bryan: Well, Maine has always been very, very much a part of art. You’ll have major American artists who have lived and painted in Maine and major American writers who’ve used the life of Maine also in their writing. For some reason, it appeals to something of the environment, the landscape and all this, held people and helped them to focus on what their artwork was. So yes, it’s for writing and art, you have a tremendous history of American artists.
Lisa Belisle: You told me that your parents were originally from Antigua.
Ashley Bryan: Antigua, yes.
Lisa Belisle: And that up until relatively recently you still travel down there. You still have family down there.
Ashley Bryan: Yes. Yes.
Lisa Belisle: So that’s a contrast. That’s a big contrast between Maine and Antigua.
Ashley Bryan: Was it, yes. Yeah, but still in Maine it’s another way of life. As you travel, you experience different ways of life, and although I’ve loved Antigua and it’s like summer year round in Antigua. You can be on the beach every day. Still I would not choose to live there year-round. There’s something about the seasons and all that. It’s meant a lot to me.
Lisa Belisle: You mentioned that you had spent some time at Cedar’s and probably that’s related to being a little older now. Do you ever find yourself frustrated by being older and not doing as much as you once did?
Ashley Bryan: I do more and more. And I get more and more requests. Just got a folder from a woman, Sally Blum, who was the wife of a great oboist, Robert Blum, who died, and she sent me another big program. She’s a person who works on commissioning composers and writers. She had a composer work on a score for my poems to Sing to the Sun and Alvin Singleton and was for chamber orchestra children’s choir and narrator, and she just sent me another thing about a big program, but I don’t think I’ll be able to enter into it, which will mean working with composers and choral groups and everything.
Lisa Belisle: You don’t feel like your age is slowing you down?
Ashley Bryan: No. No. No, it doesn’t slow, but I focus on different interests always.
Lisa Belisle: Who are your role models in your artistic career? Who did you consider to be people that you emulated?
Ashley Bryan: Well, at home it was my family. My mother, my father, they were always a role model. I think that’s important to find it close at home. And then the community always has meant a lot to me. The people of the community. There’s kind of a give-and-take with people and an outreach that’s kindly and thoughtful and helpful. That’s at the heart of what you look for in a day, the kindliness of others. People being considerate and thoughtful.
Lisa Belisle: You used scissors in your book about the blackbird. Your mother’s scissors. And….
Ashley Bryan: Yes.
Lisa Belisle: You told me that part of this idea….
Ashley Bryan: That was her special scissors, yes.
Lisa Belisle: It’s part of this idea of creating….
Ashley Bryan: When she died, the family gave me them, so I told you I can play with them all day long, but at one point I wasn’t allowed to touch them ‘cause they were the special scissors.
Lisa Belisle: And that book is a book that’s done with collage.
Ashley Bryan: Yes. Yes.
Lisa Belisle: What is it that you like about collage?
Ashley Bryan: Well, it’s the colored papers are there, and when I was going to do Beautiful Black Bird, it said they were going to be all colors of the rainbow. That’s when I said I’d rather do colored papers, rather than painting the colors, so that’s how the collage. That was my first collage book, with Kaitlin Louie, the new editor. She encouraged it, and so I worked that, cutting and pasting the colored papers, so that was nice.
Lisa Belisle: And the color black, you wanted the color black to be beautiful.
Ashley Bryan: So I used a black, yes.
Lisa Belisle: You wanted that to be beautiful.
Ashley Bryan: That was no problem because it is a beautiful color. In fact, I’ve had friends who dressed only in black. Women, who love black, come summers and they dress in black, all of their things. Every day, run around clothed and things, but they love to dress in dark colors.
Lisa Belisle: You also, when I’ve looked around your studio, I see puppets that you’ve been working with for years.
Ashley Bryan: Yes, well, world of the puppet, it’s so surprising when a puppet is in motion, how real it becomes, how believable it becomes, you see. If ever you’re in Atlanta, I’m going to attend the puppetry museum. They have all these examples because they use all the technology to develop their stories now. They can have so many puppets doing different things, and all of it is worked out electronically so they can carry the story.
Lisa Belisle: But your puppets were made from things that you found.
Ashley Bryan: Yes. Yes. I’ve always been into like recreating what’s thrown away, what is of no use. So the sea glass that meant everything. I don’t know, they’re in their little building. My sea glass work is going to be permanently installed there, but there’s still some of it that’s in the room there. I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to see some. I love working with this.
Lisa Belisle: Yes. It’s beautiful.
Ashley Bryan: It’s really magical, and in that building it’ll have about a stretch of nine panels. They use to hang in the back bedroom, but it’s really amazing when they’re lit. You see the beer bottle, the wine bottle, soda bottles and what they become.
Lisa Belisle: Yes, you have beautiful stained glass in your back window.
Ashley Bryan: Yes.
Lisa Belisle: And it really catches the light.
Ashley Bryan: Yes. Well, that’s it, and did you get one of the folders of the panels that are in the church? The church has two sets of nine panels. Let me see. Of the sea glass.
These are the panels in the church. The church owns them and they made the folder and the Bible verses from which they come.
Lisa Belisle: Well, these are beautiful.
Ashley Bryan: Yeah.
Lisa Belisle: And you started working on these many years ago.
Ashley Bryan: From the sixties on. I’ve never stopped. I’m always working on sea glass.
Lisa Belisle: What is it about sea glass that you like so much?
Ashley Bryan: Well, it’s like stained glass. Any of this little glass that they make, put it up to the light, and it just glows.
Lisa Belisle: You also use a lot of….
Ashley Bryan: They’ve done panels like this with the scented…
Lisa Belisle: Oh, those are beautiful.
Ashley Bryan: Did you get one of these. I’ll look for some others.
Lisa Belisle: You also use a lot of imagery that you first.
Ashley Bryan: A lot of….
Lisa Belisle: A lot of images that you first learned about when you were young and went to St. John’s.
Ashley Bryan: These images. It’s like medieval art. Two dimensional drawing, very simple, very clear. That’s the patterns I followed in my work. Very simple, outlined figures.
Lisa Belisle: What about your use of things like the lion? What about your use of animals?
Ashley Bryan: Yes.
Lisa Belisle: In stained glass. Tell me about that.
Ashley Bryan: Yes. In fact, in the Christian tradition, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Matthew is the man. Mark is the lion. Luke is an ox, and John is an eagle. Any church you pass, if you see a lion in front, that’s of St. Mark. If you see an ox, it’s Luke and if it’s an eagle, it’s John. The church I attend at St. John’s, the eagle was a symbol everywhere, so it tells you that.
Lisa Belisle: Do you have any advice for younger artists because it seems as though it wasn’t easy for you to start publishing in the publishing world, your books? It took some time. It took some years.
Ashley Bryan: Well, the arts, anything that you’re doing that’s creative, stay with it, no matter what. It hasn’t to do with being recognized, but don’t let anybody tell you, “Oh, don’t do that. You’re no good at it. Or you won’t make a living doing it.” Don’t pay that any mind. If it’s something you love to do. That’s how you get to know who you are by investigating what you love. If people put you off, it doesn’t work. You regret it later in life.
Lisa Belisle: What about your love of books. I know that you’re reading a book that is called Joy.
Ashley Bryan: Well, I always am reading.
Lisa Belisle: You’re always reading. This one is Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama.
Ashley Bryan: Well, that’s one aspect of it, but I also read novels and I read plays and I read poetry. The whole range. History, whatever.
Lisa Belisle: So what is it about the books that keeps you so interested, and the range?
Ashley Bryan: Well, it’s just an interest in life, and everything about life comes up in books, and that almost anybody who you know who loves anything about learning, you visit their home, you’ll see shelves of books. Wherever I go, my friends, there’s shelves of books that just build up as the years go on. You can’t resist it.
Lisa Belisle: What are your favorite types of books to read?
Ashley Bryan: I don’t have a favorite in that sense. I try not to have favorites about anything. I go only by what I need at any time. At one point, I may need a Shakespearean sonnet. Another time it’s an Edna St. Vincent Millay poem. It varies. So I try to stay clear of favorites, it varies.
When th children ask me, which is my favorite book. I’ve done about 50. If I say, oh, The Dancing Granny is my favorite, but now I’m reading one of my African folk ,and I say I’m not going to help you. Why don’t you read your favorite? So I said, I can’t let them know. Whatever I’m doing has to be the most important at that moment.
Lisa Belisle: Tell me about the Ashley Bryan Center.
Ashley Bryan: Yeah, that was the idea of some friends, not me. That’d be the last thing in the world for me to do, but I’m very touched that they wanted what I’ve been doing to go further, and so they said they would create the center. They simply asked if it was all right. I said you go ahead, but they’ve done everything about it. But it’s all their work.
Lisa Belisle: What would you like to see happen with your work? What would you like?
Ashley Bryan: I never gave it a thought. I just want to do it while I’m alive. Whatever afterwards, I’m very glad that they feel that it could still inspire others. That’s very touching that they feel that way about it. That’s been very nice.
Lisa Belisle: So you want to do what you can do while you’re here.
Ashley Bryan: Yes.
Lisa Belisle: So what are you working on now?
Ashley Bryan: Oh, yes. I’m working on poems by Christina Rossetti from her Sing-Song poems. I’ve always loved her poems, but she’s not available regularly. The poem that I always remember as a child of hers was “Who has seen the wind, neither you nor I, but when the leaves hang trembling, the wind is passing by. Who has seen the wind? Neither, I nor you, but when the trees hang down their heads, the wind is passing through.” I’d always remember those, so I went to her Sing-Song book of poems and illustrated a whole group of them, so that will be a project that may come out next year.
Lisa Belisle: And what are you using this time? Are you using collage? Are you using paint?
Ashley Bryan: I’m using the tempera paint, the colors, and a pen drawing.
Lisa Belisle: So what was it about that poem that caused you to use tempera paints and pen?
Ashley Bryan: Well, it was a poem that reminded me that Christina Rossetti is not well known, although Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses is popular and others, but somehow she’s escaped us. She’s a tremendous poet and her work for children, Sing-Song, just wonderful poems.
Lisa Belisle: So was there something about the tempera that seemed to go with that poem?
Ashley Bryan: Yes. Yes, ‘cause I wanted to do the direct color, and I could do it with that.
Lisa Belisle: You were just in Atlanta for six days because you had some problems getting back on your flight, what were you doing down there?
Ashley Bryan: In Atlanta, well, the Hyde Museum is an incredible museum, but they have this fantastic exhibit of my art of all of my work in major exhibits in their galleries and programs related to my art, and so they also had the preview of The Dancing Granny play and of the teenagers reading Freedom Over Me. Extraordinary performances in both cases. I hope to return in June to see the full production of The Dancing Granny ‘cause they did a ten minutes program. It was wonderful.
Lisa Belisle: Do you feel like it caught the spirit of your work?
Ashley Bryan: They not only caught the spirit, but they developed their own spirited relation to it, which it made it so exciting because they could become themselves through what was offered up. What I had given them. They could take off from that and find more of their own selves in doing it. That was wonderful to watch. Yes. Very professional.
Lisa Belisle: Are there any things in your life that have caused you to be very angry or very sad or very conflicted that you’ve had to overcome?
Ashley Bryan: Well, I think the essential thing that we’re sad about in the world is the sufferings of people. The suffering that comes about through generally war or just the being cruel to another for no other reason that it’s a woman or a color or a religion or whatever. Using some excuse to take it out on another. That pervades the world, but we know that in essence, it’s the thoughtfulness and the kindliness that we feel the meaning of being here.
No one wants to be unhappy and beat up on. Everyone wants to feel good about things and also to be healthy. Because the basic thing in the book of Joy was all human beings would like to be free of suffering, to have good health, to find joy and happiness. Well, you can’t contend that.
It doesn’t matter what religion or color or sex you are, it’s basic. It’s a human thrust to just find something to have a feeling a joy about being in the day.
Lisa Belisle: That’s not always easy.
Ashley Bryan: No, it’s not, but it means an awful lot when you make an effort to create that. The simple thing. They say the smile. You pass someone, you smile. They smile. That’s something. It’s a gift. It’s not a big deal. It’s a simple, like have another cookie.
Lisa Belisle: Well, I was saying as we got here to start interviewing you, this is the first radio show we’ve done where you’ve had cookies. You’ve had cake, and you’ve brought coffee.
Ashley Bryan: So your radio audience can be jealous.
Lisa Belisle: I think my radio audience is a little jealous for lots of reasons right now.
Ashley Bryan: How familiar are you with them?
Lisa Belisle: With my radio audience?
Ashley Bryan: Yes.
Lisa Belisle: We’re together once week.
Ashley Bryan: Once a week. Good.
Lisa Belisle: Yes.
Ashley Bryan: Wow. And so you did it with them with me?
Lisa Belisle: Yes.
Ashley Bryan: Wow.
Lisa Belisle: This is a great opportunity for everybody.
Ashley Bryan: I hope they were enjoying it.
Lisa Belisle: Well, I think that they have been.
Ashley Bryan: Good.
Lisa Belisle: Is there anything else that you could tell me over the years of your life that you’ve learned, anything that you feel will be useful to me as a person?
Ashley Bryan: Some special thing?
Lisa Belisle: Well, it doesn’t have to be special. Anything at all really.
Ashley Bryan: Well, I think we were involved in everything that’s special because I’ve always say when someone asks me, what is the most important thing for you? I’ve always said, “It’s this moment, being with you, because that is what my day will be.”
And if I’m with you thinking, oh, I’d rather be over there or in another place, then I’m not getting the most out of that moment, and I want to get the most, so you become the most important thing that’s happening, by being here, and I like to give that feeling.
I’ll do anything to inform how important it is to me that I can give you the best of myself while we’re engaged. It means an awful lot, okay?
Lisa Belisle: It means a lot to me, too.
Ashley Bryan: Yeah.
Lisa Belisle: Well, I’ve enjoyed our conversation and….
Ashley Bryan: And now you have a folder to remember me by.
Lisa Belisle: I have a folder. I have
Ashley Bryan: Do you have one?
Background speaker: I do.
Lisa Belisle: Yes.
Ashley Bryan: Hold on.
Lisa Belisle: All of us that traveled over here to be with you. We have Ashley Bryan sea glass panels, which people can go to Islesford Congregational Church, is that where we would see these?
Ashley Bryan: Yeah, there right on the Islesford Church here. You can always go in and just touch the switch and they’ll light up.
Lisa Belisle: So we’ll do that before we leave the island.
Ashley Bryan: Yes.
Lisa Belisle: For people who can’t do that, if you happen to be in Atlanta, you can see some of his work.
Ashley Bryan: Here in Atlanta, they have an extensive gallery exhibits of my books. My book art.
Lisa Belisle: You can also go to the upcoming L/A Arts Puppetry Exhibit and Show that will be coming up in a few weeks here in April.
Ashley Bryan: Yes.
Lisa Belisle: In Lewiston/ Auburn.
Ashley Bryan: Yes.
Lisa Belisle: And the Ashley Bryan Center, who knows where that’s going to go, but there’s another place people could find out more about you, and I’ve been thrilled to know that you can really find your books in local bookstores all over the place.
Ashley Bryan: Yes, the interesting thing in this book, people ask me who I identify with most, could you guess? It was the little boy, John, who was given as a birthday present because he’s the one who wants to become an artist and paint from them, and I love him. I love, he says, “I wonder how art came to me, a slave.” I love that. So I have him, but the reason that you see, he was given as a birthday present to the Fairchild and he says, “I’ve learned about Africa from the slaves with whom I live.”
That tells you something that they’ve come back. Although they’re slaves, they’ve come from a background and that’s why it was important with me when telling their stories, I wove into it what their experiences were. For instance, the woman who is the seamstress, Charlotte, she says, in her background. I wanted to give them a background that, my fingers were never still. That thing that they are doing had been a part of them their training also.
Like the seamstress, and Stephen, he adopts like the little boy. He looks after John, and John works with him. And Jane, the seamstress, and in her background, she says, “I was an apprentice as a child to my family’s textile industry.” I mean, she’s a slave, but she has a background. “I work beside my parents. My eyes dance to the making of cloths. I thought the spinning, the weaving, the dying of fabrics was a miracle of threads. Threads becoming cloths. Cloths becoming clothes to wear.” So I give them a background, which meant everything to me.
Lisa Belisle: So you didn’t want these people to be forgotten.
Ashley Bryan: Yes, and it would be as if you’re walking the street, you see a young man digging and the thing you walk by. You don’t know. He may be young man digging to earn to go to college. He may be a young man whose married and has a child. He’s digging to feed his family, but you just see him as someone digging beside the road. You know nothing of their background, and that’s the way the slaves were taken as a slave, meaning everything else, nothing else. That they can be used and exploited, and it was important to me to give them a background of some kind. And then of course the important thing was their dream. What is their dream?
And John says, “No matter what work I do on this day, even learning carpentry from Stephen, I think of drawing. I plan one day to draw freely from free negro people. I will create loving portraits of their strength and beauty.” So that’s how I have the young boy dreaming. So each one has also the dream.
Lisa Belisle: Ashley, it’s been a pleasure. I really appreciate your taking the time to talk with me today.
Ashley Bryan: I’m glad you could have time to exchange.
Lisa Belisle: Well, I’ve learned a lot. Thank you so much.
Ashley Bryan: Good.
Speaker: Love Maine Radio is brought to you by The Front Room, The Corner Room, The Grill Room and Boone’s Fishhouse & Oyster Room, Chef Harding Lee Smith’s Restaurant’s where atmosphere, great service and palate-pleasing options are available to suit any culinary mood. For more information, go to Portland Art Gallery is proud to sponsor Love Maine Radio. Portland Art Gallery is Portland’s largest gallery and is located in the heart of the Old Port at 154 middle Street.
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Speaker: You have been listing to Love Maine Radio, Show Number 292, the Art of Ashley Bryan. Learn more about the artist at Ashley Bryan Days taking place this month in Lewiston, Auburn. The Emerge Film Festival on April 29th will include a reading of Freedom Over Me and a screening of the documentary film, I Know a Man, Ashley Bryan.
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