Ashley Bryan, celebrated teacher, author, and artist, passed on February 4, 2022. He was 98 years old. Artistically, Ashley's work was as varied as his stories. His accomplished draughtsmanship is evident whether using pencil or pen to create drawings that range from meticulous renderings of the object to vibrant celebrations of linear movement and energy. His linoleum block prints, in emulation of medieval woodcuts, were often reprised in colorful paintings that impart a similar visual intensity. He created puppets for his storytelling from the found objects salvaged from walks on the island; he also returned to one of the earliest forms of visual narrative in the stained-glass windows he fashioned from scavenged sea glass and papier-mâché.
Ashley committed himself to filling the void of Black representation by creating children's books about the African and African American experience. He published over seventy books – most of his own creation, as well as illustrating texts of other eminent authors such as Nikki Giovanni, Nikki Grimes, Langston Hughes, and Paul Laurence Dunbar to name a few. Ashley traveled tirelessly to conferences, festivals, museums, and universities and visited children in schools in the United States and Africa. He was beloved by teachers and librarians for expanding the literary landscape.
Ashley was an early, quiet, and potent force in bringing children of color and issues of racial diversity into the canon of children's literature. He did not pursue the faddish or "sparkly" popular, but rather went his own way producing books that were important to him. He was committed to opening the eyes of children of all backgrounds to a wide range of themes through poetry, folktales, spirituals, and biblical narratives. Through his work, his spirit will endure.
Ashley has been the recipient of numerous awards and honors, ranging from ten honorary degrees to innumerable lifetime achievement awards. His writing and illustrations have also garnered him an impressive range of prestigious recognition. He was the recipient the Coretta Scott King Award more than any author/illustrator with his fourth award being given for his writing and illustration of Freedom Over Me, a fictional account of eleven slaves based on slave sale purchase documents found at a local auction. Ashley's plethora of rich children's literature includes Beautiful Blackbird, a Zambian folktale illustrated in paper collage, which has been the key focus of several museum exhibitions. He received the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award and the Virginia Hamilton Lifetime Award. In 2008, he was named a Library Lion along with renowned writers Edward Albee, Nora Ephron and Salman Rushdie.
Born in 1923, Ashley grew up in the Bronx during the Depression. He began making books at the age of six and never stopped. Trips to the public library fueled his passion for books. There was, however, no opportunity to identify with Black characters through books that were available. He recalls, "At that time I knew very little about books by or about Black people."
Ashley excelled at art in high school, and his teachers encouraged him to apply to art school. Despite an impressive portfolio, he was rebuffed by the art schools in the city. He was told that a scholarship would be wasted on a Black student. With his teachers' guidance, Ashley was accepted at Cooper Union with its blind admissions process. Just before graduating, Ashley was drafted into the army in May of 1943.
During the war, drawing helped Ashley keep his humanity in the segregated unit where he served in the D-Day invasion on Omaha Beach and beyond. His last publication was a memoir, Infinite Hope, based on his drawings and letters from that period. After the war, Ashley finished Cooper Union, and, on the GI Bill, studied philosophy at Columbia University, subsequently spending three years in the south of France. Later he won a Fulbright Scholarship for studying in Germany [he wanted to be able to read Rilke in the original], and then taught at high schools and colleges, eventually securing a tenured position at Dartmouth College.
In 1946, while at the Skowhegan School of Art's inaugural summer program in Maine, Ashley visited Acadia National Park and saw the Cranberry Isles. This island community became his home and studio for the next 70+ years.
As a humanitarian and in response to his extensive travels throughout South Africa and Kenya, Ashley supported the building of water towers and libraries in a few villages. He participated in, supported and encouraged the literacy efforts in many schools in these towns where he earned the affectionate title of "LongPapa". He advocated and supported the incredible work being done by such organizations as Ubuntu Pathways and Kopanang. People around the world who have had the experience of meeting Ashley, particularly those who recited Langston Hughes' My People with him, have never forgotten this very special man.
In 2013, family and friends founded The Ashley Bryan Center with the purpose of placing his prodigious archive and raising awareness about this remarkable individual. To this end, The Center has donated the bulk of his archive to the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts at the University of Pennsylvania. The Center is also in the process of distributing paintings and other works to Maine institutions and beyond.
Ashley passed on February 4, 2022 in Sugarland, Texas while being lovingly cared for by his dedicated niece, Vanessa, whom he treasured as a daughter. Ashley leaves behind to cherish his memory his only living brother, Ernest, many nieces and nephews and wonderful, loving friends he called family.
We will miss our dear "LongPapa" !