Painter and Poet: the Art of Ashley Bryan is the first major art museum exhibition in Maine for the award-winning 95-year-old artist and Little Cranberry Island resident, a pioneer of African and African American representation in the children's book medium, who has published more than 50 titles since his first collection of poems in 1967.
This exhibition highlights the breadth of Ashley Bryan's prolific and varied creative output. It features original art from 14 titles and a selection of independent work, including sketches made while serving in World War II and large puppets made from found objects washed ashore on the Maine island where he has lived for over 60 years. It provides audiences with the full scope of his career, from his earliest books of African folktales to his 2016 book Freedom Over Me: Eleven Slaves, Their Lives and Dreams Brought to Life by Ashley Bryan, which won a Newbery Honor and Coretta Scott King Honors in both Author and Illustrator categories.
Born in 1923, Ashley Bryan grew up in the Bronx during the Great Depression and began making books at the age of six. He has never stopped. Trips to the public library—where he sought out folk tales, fairy tales, novels, biographies, and poetry—fueled his passion for storytelling from a young age. His parents, American immigrants from Antigua, supported and encouraged his creative endeavors; Bryan recollects an art desk they purchased for him and the rich variety of paper scraps that his father, a professional printer, brought home for him.
In 1940, Bryan was accepted into Cooper Union School of Art and Engineering, a significant accomplishment given the lack of opportunities for black students at the time. World War II put his education on hold, however, when he was drafted into a segregated unit of the U.S. Army in 1943. Assigned to the 502nd Port Battalion, Bryan took part in the Normandy invasion, landing on Omaha Beach on June 9, 1944.
After the war, Bryan completed his education at Cooper Union. He later studied philosophy at Columbia University, and went to Germany on a Fulbright scholarship. He taught art in high schools and universities, including 14 years as professor of art at Dartmouth College. In the summer of 1946, while attending Maine’s Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture, he visited Acadia National Park and saw the Cranberry Isles; he soon moved there and has called this island community home for the past 60 years.
Ashley Bryan is one of the earliest tellers of African tales in picture-book form in America. In the 1940s, he created a rich body of work that became the foundation for his own series of African folktales, including The Ox of the Wonderful Horns and Other African Folktales (1971) and The Adventures of Aku (1976). The original artworks for these books are precisely rendered tempera paintings in red, ochre, and black that make direct references to African sculptures, masks, and rock paintings. In these books, Bryan not only created the illustrations, but also retold the traditional stories in ways that connect to the visual style.
Extrapolating from sources ranging from South Africa to Angola, Bryan continues to introduce readers to African tales. He notes that “it means a lot to me to open up aspects of black culture to people. I hope that my work with the African tales will be . . . like a bridge reaching across distances of time and space.” In 2003, for instance, he adapted Beautiful Blackbird, a story from Zambia, which he illustrated using a collage-based process. In the book, Blackbird shares his gifts by giving each bird “a touch of black,” demonstrating the importance of inclusion, diversity, and self-worth, saying, “just remember, whatever I do, I’ll be me and you’ll be you.”