Ashley Bryan’s life story is among the most extraordinary in American arts and letters. The son of West Indian immigrants from Antigua, Bryan was raised in the Bronx. After serving in a segregated Army unit in World War II, he completed a degree at the Cooper Union Art School and pursued a doctorate in philosophy […]
By Yankee Magazine
Oct 30 2015
Bryan holds a stained-glass sculpture made by one of his students; the pieces are adhered with papier-mâché, a technique that Bryan developed.Photo Credit : Sean Alonzo Harris
Ashley Bryan’s life story is among the most extraordinary in American arts and letters. The son of West Indian immigrants from Antigua, Bryan was raised in the Bronx. After serving in a segregated Army unit in World War II, he completed a degree at the Cooper Union Art School and pursued a doctorate in philosophy at Columbia University. On the first of two Fulbright trips to Europe, Bryan made drawings of the master cellist Pablo Casals.
In the 1960s, Bryan met Jean Karl, an editor at Atheneum Books, who encouraged him to try illustration. He went on to create a canon of contemporary children’s literature: brilliant retellings of African and West Indian tales illustrated with colorful images. In 1973 he joined the faculty of Dartmouth College.
Maine has been a centering place for Bryan since 1946, when he attended the first summer session of the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. On trips to the Mount Desert Island region, he discovered Islesford, a tightly knit community of fishermen and their families. The island has embraced its renowned artist with full-scale affection. The Islesford School was renamed the Ashley Bryan School in 2012. In 2013, Bryan’s extraordinary sea-glass renderings of Bible stories were installed in Islesford Congregational Church.
Reports of Bryan’s travels and honors appear regularly in the Cranberry Isles column of the Mount Desert Islander news-paper. An entry might read: “Ashley Bryan has just returned from South Africa, where he helped open a new school,” or “Bryan was recently honored as a Library Lion by the New York Public Library.” (Fellow recipients in 2008 were playwright Edward Albee, screenwriter Nora Ephron, and novelist Salman Rushdie.)
Today, at age 92, Bryan continues to make news. The Maine College of Art awarded him an honorary degree at its May commencement. And from July through October 2015, the Wendell Gilley Museum in Southwest Harbor, Maine, will host an exhibition, A Visit with Ashley Bryan, mounted by the Ashley Bryan Center, an organization dedicated to celebrating his life and work.
This fall, Bryan will publish Sail Away, an illustrated collection of Langston Hughes’s poems about the sea. He often starts his storytelling performances, which have electrified audiences around the world, with Hughes’s poem “My People,” asking his listeners to repeat the lines after him. “Beautiful, also, are the souls of my people,” reads the last line. Beautiful, also, is the art of Ashley Bryan.— Carl Little