Letter From Away
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Letter From Away

Remembering Ashley Bryan

Letter from Away — February 5, 2022

I wrote this in the fall of 2014, at the beginning of my time as a non-traditional undergraduate at College of the Atlantic. Ashley Bryan died February 4, 2022.

When I told my family I had a ride on College of the Atlantic’s research vessel, the M/V Osprey, last Tuesday, they assumed the mission was science-based. It’s an easy guess. After all, I’m a student at a school where the name of the only major contains the word ‘ecology’ and the majority of those I’ve met in my few short weeks here are focusing on fields such as biology and engineering. My husband and kids know I’m taking a marine biology course, so I can see where they got the idea that afternoon’s excursion involved a study of the ocean.

In fact, the passengers on Osprey were members of Nancy Andrews’ Advanced Projects class, and we were on our way to Islesford, a small year-round community on Little Cranberry Island, about a half-hour from the COA dock. Our mission was not to collect samples for viewing under a microscope, but to meet artist Ashley Bryan and see the display of his life history that is currently on exhibit at the island’s museum.

Ashley Bryan’s was born in New York in 1923, in Harlem; his parents were natives of Antigua. He began painting as a very young child and self-published his first book, an illustrated alphabet, in kindergarten. Because he was African American, entrance to most art schools was denied him, but the policy of the city’s Cooper Union school called for a blind review of prospective students’ portfolios. Two years into his college career, World War II intervened and Bryan was inducted into the Army, participating in the Normandy invasion and continuing to draw throughout his time in Europe.

Ashley Bryan’s home full of eye candy includes a self portrait made of clay.
Ashley Bryan’s home full of eye candy includes a self portrait made of clay.

Before walking up the hill to meet Bryan at his home and studio, we visited Acadia National Park’s recently renovated Islesford Historical Museum, where “A Visit With Ashley Bryan” was mounted prior to coming to COA’s Blum Gallery. Packed into a tiny space were examples of the paintings, stained glass works, and puppets that are samples of the variety and quantity of his life’s work. Throughout the displays, viewers can read quotations from the artist and see a time line that encompasses more than 90 years of thought, hard work and creativity. Almost saturated with visual information, we were totally unprepared for what awaited us after a brief walk up the hill to Bryan’s house.

Ashely Bryan’s home is filled with creative eye candy. The walls are mostly hidden with shelves and the shelves are populated with a fantastic array of toys, gadgets and artifacts. As he passed around items from his collection of push-pull toys, Bryan encouraged us to learn how things work and how to make the things we want.

As he passed around items from his collection of push-pull toys, Bryan encouraged us to learn how things work and how to make the things we want.

“You can make things,” he told us. “You don’t have to buy them.” He said making things challenges us to explore what us known and unknown.

He brought us upstairs, to the sunny loft where he paints every day.

“I paint all the time,” he said. In summer, he paints in his garden and brings ideas from the garden into his studio, which is filled with bright, energetic canvasses depicting blossoms subjects from the natural environment that surrounds his home.

After a 1980s symposium on children’s literature, and in preparation for a subsequent conference about war and peace in the arts, Bryan dug into his old portfolios to look at drawings he had made during World War II, images that were too painful to look at when he first came home.

“Veterans work hard to not talk about those things they are trying to get past,” he told us. After the war and peace symposium, he again buried the drawings of Black soldiers playing games in their barracks, “creating a world which blocked out the painful experiences of their daily lives.”

Recently, after a Japanese film crew visited his studio and the host asked about the war sketches, Bryant took them out and began a new series, creating five paintings that use the color and energy previously seen in his garden paintings.

One of Ashley Bryan’s paintings of soldiers playing cards.
One of Ashley Bryan’s paintings of soldiers playing cards.

“All of these, to me, is painting the garden. I didn’t have to paint the soldiers as Black.” He said the variety of color makes the characters more open, a decision he said is the artists to make. “The only thing it’s going to look like is what you have chosen to stand by when you show it to others.” Whatever he paints, no matter what the season, he said it will always be “ … from the garden. Even when the colors are gone, I see the colors.” He said they calm him down.

“I draw out a composition and it becomes the child in me,” he said. “When I’m looking at the world I have transform these drawings into myself”

“I’m only after, ‘Who am I in this mystery of being.’ ” He said all the different media he works in produce the same emotions, and he chooses which to work in based on the rhythm of the day, breaking up a long period of painting with time making puppets or stained glass.

“People say I’m no artist and I’m saying I am you.” He compared it to cooking. “You’re transforming what is given into something else,” he said.” Bryan said the sense of beauty is not a property of the artist. “The aesthetic is in the person who sees the beauty. It is the one universal motif that’s in every person in the world — the desire to transform one thing into another. Artists create in order to feed those who need it,” he said and reveled for a moment in the privilege of seeing and interpreting the world’s beauty.

Currently, Bryan is illustrating of Langston Hughes’ “Poems of the Sea.” For this book, he is using colored paper that he cuts and layers to form vivid images.

“When you start cutting, you get a hole in the world,” he said.

Bryan wakes early each spring morning and works until mid-day. Once summer visitors begin to arrive, he finds that he’s often up late, talking with them. Still, he rises at 5 a.m. and works until mid-morning, when his guests start to move around the house.

Ashley Bryan surrounded himself with whimsey.
Ashley Bryan surrounded himself with whimsey.

Before we leave, he lets us wander through the house, touching and playing with the toys and artifacts that he has made or collected, that inspire him to continue the creative acts that fill his life. He calls our visit an exchange of valuable time. And offers to help us with our work.

“People inspire one another, encourage each other,” he said. He told us it is important for artists, who often work alone, to make connections that keep them from becoming isolated. He cited the calming influence of “the family who wants me to sit in a rocker and put my feet up.”

Bryan has illustrated approximately 40 books and focuses on the cultural contributions of Black artists, teachers, activists and storytellers.

As we walk out the door, full of ideas and inspiration, our minds still wandering through packed narrow passages and rooms that house so many works of the hand, Bryan calls to us to stop so he can say goodbye in the way he does to all departing guests.

He stands on the top step of his island home and declaims Langston Hughes’ poem, My People:

“The night is beautiful,

So the faces of my people.

“The stars are beautiful,

So the eyes of my people.

“Beautiful, also, is the sun.

Beautiful, also, are the souls of my people.”

He tells us we are his people, giving us a final gift of shared inspiration, and sends us on our way.

A hearse driver toy with a flag-draped coffin, by Ashley Bryan.
A hearse driver toy with a flag-draped coffin, by Ashley Bryan.

Learn more about Ashley Bryan at his website.

Shlomit Auciello is a writer, photographer, and human ecologist who has lived in Midcoast Maine since 1988. Letter From Away has appeared online and in print, on and off since 1992, and is published here on a weekly basis.

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