Two years ago, Ms. Purdom’s Fifth Grade class and my Fourth Grade class, as part of a camping trip to Acadia National Park, took a side trip out to Little Cranberry Island, Maine to meet artist and poet Ashley Bryan. It was an unforgettable experience for us all as we toured his studios, played with his handmade toys, marveled at his beautiful children’s books, and got to know this unique man.
Though this former Dartmouth professor, artist, author, and poet, is soon to be 90 years of age (his birthday is July 13), Ashley Bryan has kept young, physically and in spirit, his mind always in creative mode. There is no question that he has kept his inner child alive throughout the years. Children and adults alike are drawn to Ashley who makes everyone feel special by giving his whole attention to them, no matter who, or how old they are. His enthusiasm and his love of life and people have no bounds. He will engage deeply in a conversation with a five year old and demonstrate one of his movable toys, happily playing with the child in his “Toy Museum”, quite forgetting the time. His house and studio are brimful from floor to ceiling with handmade toys, collectibles, and artifacts from all over the world, as well as with Ashley’s own creations: his paintings, collages, puppets, stained glass windows made from sea glass, papier-mâche, woodcuts, and of course, books of all kinds. It is a fascinating place to visit!
Ashley loves to share his art, and he loves to tell stories. His mind is overflowing with ideas, poems, and wisdom. I remember Ashley welcoming our classes at the mail boat landing on Little Cranberry Island and walking with us in long energetic strides on the way to his house, reciting some of the poetry of Langston Hughes in a booming, resonating voice. With patience and unwavering commitment he tended to two busy classes of children and several adults that day, demonstrating his toys, answering questions, and making us feel that were were his honored guests.
Ashley stands out with his vibrant personality, but also by his stature (he stands very tall) and by being the only African American living on Little Cranberry. However, Ashley feels connected to all people, no matter what the color of their skin, their religion, or ethnic background.
Ashley’s biography is as eclectic as his artistic tastes. He studied art in France and Germany and has a particular affinity for these languages and cultures. He still travels widely, collecting folk tales in Africa and finding inspiration for his art from the folk soul in other countries. Although he suffered racial discrimination in New York where he grew up, he decided early not to be affected by this, but to concentrate on the positive in life and to see the goodness in every person he met. He had to overcome many obstacles on his way to becoming a professional artist, but as he says, “I never gave up!” I have never heard him refer to any negative experiences in his life, not even to those during World War II, where he served in the U.S. Army as a 19 year old: “All through the war years, I drew whenever I could,” said Ashley. “During any lull I would take out my sketchbook and draw.” He has a vast collection of inspiring stories and humorous anecdotes from his life that he will readily share. Ashley even refers to the years of the Great Depression as a memorable time when he learned to make his own toys with cast-off materials he and his sister found in the streets. This kind of “treasure-hunting” lasted all his life; his sculptures, his puppets and other creations bear testimony to an enormous creative spirit that allows him to incorporate beach finds—drift wood, bones, shells, pebbles, and mundane objects, into new art forms; as he says, “The inspiration that comes from collecting things has stayed with me all my life.”
Ursula Leonore with Ashely Bryan at his Islesboro studio
A teacher at heart, Ashley captivates audiences of children and adults with his warm personality and radiant smile. He is a model for young and old to emulate. In his autobiography, Words to My Life’s Song, Ashley points to the people in his early life who inspired him—his parents and teachers, whom he recalls with great fondness. His parents supported his artistic talents in any way possible, though they had small means and looked after a large family. At his local elementary school, he was introduced to “the practice of performing poetry.” He says that “the understanding of poetry as a performance art has never left me. It is at the heart of all of my work.” Ashley is the author and illustrator of many books for children, as well as books of spirituals and poetry. He has won numerous awards, among them, the 2012 Coretta Scott King Award-Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement.
Wherever he goes, especially visiting schools and addressing children, Ashley transmits his love for learning and for art and literature. Of course, he has a natural connection to the children on Little Cranberry Island (also known as Islesford) who absolutely adore him. No wonder that the children on this island petitioned to rename their school, the Ashley Bryan School. What a fitting way for the islanders to express their love and gratitude to this unique man and citizen of Maine, and create a memorial for future generations! Ashley has deeply touched me personally; I love his art and his books, but most of all, I love his goodness.
Ursula Leonore is a retired Waldorf teacher. She lives in Union, Maine.