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Ashley was the second of six children who were later joined by three cousins in his family’s crowded Bronx apartment. His parents were descendants of West African slaves from Antigua.
Ashley began drawing and painting as a small boy. A printer by trade, his father was able to supply Ashley with left-over special papers for Ashley’s endless flow of artwork and drawings.
Five year old Ashley Bryan’s first book received exuberant praise from his kindergarten teacher and parents, all of whom marveled at his success as “author, illustrator, publisher and distributor” of his very own alphabet book.
When Ashley applied for scholarships to art schools at 16, he was told that his portfolios were among the most impressive ever submitted. Yet, his applications were denied, since, “It would be a waste to give a scholarship to a colored person.”
Ashley was eventually accepted to the tuition-free Cooper Union School of Art and Engineering in New York City—where “they did not see you”— solely on the basis of his exam portfolio. In 1940, he began studying sculpture, calligraphy, design, book illustration and painting.
White, mostly southern officers were assigned to Ashley’s company. Their attitudes in dealing with black soldiers were often disrespectful; Ashley discovered that German prisoners received better treatment than the black soldiers. Hiding his art materials in his gas mask, Ashley drew everything he experienced from daily life in his port battalion.
The few soldiers in Ashley’s unit who survived the war came home in "dribs and drabs" as space allowed for the segregation of black soldiers on returning ships. In 1946, Ashley returned to Cooper Union to complete his art studies. He was offered a summer scholarship to the new Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in central Maine, which was attracting the strongest artists in the country. There, Ashley first visited Acadia National Park and viewed the Cranberry Isles, later to become his permanent home.
In 1949, Ashley went to France to study art at the Université d’Aix-Marseille in Aix-en-Province. The following year, exiled world-renowned Catalan cellist Pau (Pablo) Casals, agreed to break his vow of silent protest against Franco’s fascist dictatorship in Spain. Ashley and a group of fellow students traveled from Aix to Prades, France, to hear Casals play in honor of the 200th anniversary of Bach’s death.
The event had a profound influence on Ashley in his own struggle to heal and move on from the war. For the next three years, Ashley returned to Prades for the annual Casals Festivals to hear and sketch the musicians. To this day, Ashley describes the experience of drawing the musicians in Prades as an “opening of my hand to the rhythms” that would form his signature style in all his artisitic expression from then on.
Ashley returned to the Bronx in 1953 and began teaching art full time. He continued to spend summers on the Cranberry Isles. During his years in Aix, Ashley had gotten to know many expat intellectuals studying and/or living in France. These acquaintances included numerous people who were introduced to the Cranberry Isles by Ashley.
In 1956, Ashley returned to Skowhegan, having won an annual competition to paint one of the frescoed walls in the South Solon Free Meeting House. Other walls were frescoed by Sidney Hurwitz, Sigmund Abeles and others, under the tutelage of Skowhegan founder Henry Varnum Poor, juried by Jacob Lawrence, Ben Shahn and other prominent artists.
Ashley had always loved the German poets, having memorized many of Rilke’s poems in English. He wanted to learn the sound of Rilke’s words spoken in German. In 1957, Ashley headed to the University of Freiburg on a Fulbright grant. At first, Ashley felt isolated, until he found that the venders in the marketplace accepted him. He would sketch daily scenes of life in the marketplace, returning nightly to his room outside of Freiburg, where he would reinterpret his drawings in paint.
Upon returning from Germany, Ashley took a studio in the Bronx, near his family. He taught at nine or ten different institutions, including the Dalton School, Philadelphia College of Art, Queens College, and a residency at Dartmouth College in 1967. Ashley always sought ways to integrate art and poetry into curricula.
Jean Karl, an editor at Atheneum Books, visited Ashley’s studio in 1962 – the start of a nearly four decade-long relationship. Jean sent Ashley a contract to illustrate a collection of poems by Rabindranath Tagore: Moon, for What Do You Wait? Karl had been impressed by the variety of styles she saw in Ashley’s studio, “inspired by the cultures of the world.” In particular, she loved his three-colored African folktale illustrations – ochre, red and black - painted in tempera – evoking African sculptures, masks and rock paintings.
From 1974-1988, Ashley joined the faculty of Dartmouth College’s newly established art department – just as Dartmouth was becoming co-ed. He eventually became head of “Visual Studies,” and he taught all levels of undergraduate courses in drawing, painting and design.Former student, Julie Miner, recalls the challenges faced by the charter class of Dartmouth women: “It was such an inspiration to see Ashley break down all kinds of barriers – race, gender, and even biases about art itself – in the most gentle way. He made a safe place for individual creativity at Dartmouth.”
Ashley retired from Dartmouth in 1988. He winterized his house on Islesford and became a year-round resident of the Cranberry Isles. In his infinite quest to create art from “things cast off,” he recovered “treasures washed up by the sea,” on his daily walks. Ashley crafted more and more fantastic hand-held puppets from bones, shells, drift wood, fishing net, sea glass–held together with papier maché.
During these years, Ashley dedicated himself to publishing numerous illustrated books in which he attempted to bring to life African tales, proverbs and especially spirituals—the songs of the African-American slaves whose only form of free expression was through these enduring popular songs that are rarely given appropriate attribution. Working tirelessly with his editor at Atheneum, Jean Karl, Ashley published ten books with Atheneum during this period, and he illustrated another eight books with other publishers.
Ashley’s new editor at Simon & Schuster/Atheneum, Caitlyn Dlouhy, encouraged him to develop one of the stories he had started working on with Jean Karl – a motif from a Zambian tale Ashley had begun with collage illustrations. His new editor loved the figures of the birds Ashley cut from colorful craft paper, using his mother’s sewing and needlepoint scissors. Beautiful Blackbird became one of Ashley’s most popular books, winning a Coretta Scott King Book Award in 2004.
Ashley playing the recorder and singing spirituals with children at the Kiboya Primary School in Kenya, around 2008 (left), and Ashley posing with students in front of the welcome mural he created for the Ubuntu Education Center’s reception in Cape Elizabeth, South Africa, around 2012 (right)
2008 was a year of big awards! Let it Shine won Ashley his third Corretta Scott King Award for illustration, and later that year, Ashley was honored as a New York City Library Lion along with esteemed writers Salman Rushdie, Edward Albee and Nora Ephron.
With these recognitions, it seemed that the award floodgates opened, as Ashley received the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2009, followed by the Golden Kite Award for Nonfiction in 2010 for Words to My Life’s Song and the Coretta Scott King-Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2012. Did he skip a year? No he did not! In 2011, Ashley received what he considers to be the greatest honor of his life—when the voters of the Cranberry Isles voted at town meeting to rename the school on his beloved Little Cranberry Island (also known as Islesford): The Ashley Bryan School. Ashley continues to visit the school regularly to read, teach, make art or just hang out with the kids.
In 2008, Ashley’s close friend of 30 years, summer resident artist Henry Isaacs, moved to the island year-round, when his wife, Donna, became a teacher at the two-room island school (then the Islesford School). Ashley and Henry began spending many hours a day together, painting, joking, arguing and drinking rum. The next summer, Henry and Ashley taught their first annual Labor Day painting workshop together, organized by Dan and Cynthia Lief of the Islesford Dock Restaurant and Gallery. The workshop became so popular and in-demand, that Ashley and Henry had to expand the program to two sessions the following year. Next summer will be the eighth summer of Ashley’s and Henry’s painting workshops on the island.
In 2013, a long-time dream of Ashley’s was realized when money was raised to install two sets of his sea glass panels in the Islesford Congregational Church.
Around that time, a group of island friends and some members of Ashley’s family got together and decided it was time to do more to make sure that Ashley’s legacy would continue for generations to come. The Ashley Bryan Center was founded with the mission "to preserve celebrate, and share broadly artist Ashley Bryan’s work and his joy of discovery, invention, learning and community. The Ashley Bryan Center will promote opportunities for people to come together in the creation and appreciation of visual art, literature, music, and the oral and written traditions of poetry. The Center is fiercely committed to fostering cultural understanding and personal pride through scholarship, exhibitions and opportunity in the Arts."
In the summer of 2014, the Ashley Bryan Center was launched with a retrospective exhibition of Ashley Bryan’s life and work, displayed at the Islesford Museum on Little Cranberry Island, owned by the National Parks Service. A Visit With Ashley Bryan included a timeline of Ashley’s life with examples of his work in various media from various periods. It also featured, puppets, sea glass windows, paintings, drawings and displays of book illustrations using three different media (block print, tempura paint and collage).
Many of the items had never before been seen by anyone but Ashley’s closest friends and family—in particular Ashley’s drawings of his war experiences in the segregated U.S. Army. Many people who thought they “knew” Ashley found they did not know about aspects of his life, the depth and breadth of his education and artistic experience. The exhibition proved to be very emotional and exciting for visitors—many of whom told their friends. The museum’s usual attendance of a few thousand visitors a summer expanded to over 12,000 visitors who came to see Ashley’s exhibition.
When it was over, friends at the nearby College of the Atlantic asked if the exhibition could be moved to the college for the winter, so the Center agreed to extend its life through February. Then the Wendell Gilley Museum in Southwest Harbor asked for a modified version of the exhibition to be displayed there for the summer of 2015. The exhibition was modified, and a new section, “Hot off the Press” was added to include the two new publications released in 2015: By Trolley Past Thimbledon Bridge, and Sail Away. So, A Visit with Ashley Bryan lives on…