CRANBERRY ISLES — Ashley Bryan, acclaimed artist, author, illustrator, poet and beloved Islesford resident,
died Feb. 4 at the home of a niece in Houston. He was 98.
Born and raised in New York City, he studied at The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art before being drafted into the Army in 1943 and spending the rest of World War II in Europe.
After the war, he studied philosophy and literature at Columbia University and received a Fulbright Scholarship to study in Europe. He later taught art at several U.S. colleges including Dartmouth. He retired as emeritus professor of art at Dartmouth in 1988 and moved permanently to Islesford, which he had made his part-time home after first visiting in 1946.
Bryan painted beautiful pictures. He made amazing hand puppets out of found objects and stained-glass windows out of beach glass and paper mache. He was known primarily as an author and illustrator of children’s books. But that isn’t what he started out wanting to do, according to one of his closest friends, Islesford neighbor and fellow artist Henry Isaacs, who now lives and paints in Vermont.
“He fell into that because he wasn’t allowed to illustrate adult books; he got pigeonholed by the white publishers to become a children’s book illustrator,” Isaacs said. “Of course, he did wonderful work and fell in love with it, but that wasn’t what he had planned to do. His intention was to be a painter, an artist.”
Bryan created more than 70 children’s books over six decades, all published by the Children’s Publishing Division of Simon & Schuster. Following his death, the publisher issued this tribute: “An early, quiet and potent force in bringing children of color and issues of racial diversity into the canon of children’s literature, 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.”
Bryan’s longtime editor, Caitlyn Dlouhy, said, “The gifts Ashley gave us through his art, his poetry, his books, his endless encouragement to relish the moment are forever bright lights in our world. But his innate, unwavering belief
in the beauty of everything, the value of everything that he instilled in us all is truly immeasurable.”
In 1992, Bryan published an illustrated book of poetry for children and adults titled “Sing to the Sun: Poems and Pictures.” Publishers Weekly said of it, “Bryan elegantly and powerfully celebrates life — the sadness of leaving, the joy to be found in nature, the pride of family. He artfully blends the traditions of African American culture with those of Western art.”
Among Bryan’s most well-known books are “Beautiful Blackbird” and “Freedom Over Me: Eleven Slaves. Their Lives and Dreams,” which received a Newberry Honor.
Another of his most lauded books is a beautifully illustrated memoir published in 2019 titled “Infinite Hope: A Black Artist’s Journey from World War II to Peace,” which described his experiences in the segregated Army. In addition to the horrors of war, Black American soldiers suffered the humiliating brutality of racism. Enemy POWs were sometimes accorded greater dignity and respect.
Through it all, Bryan was sustained by his art. He spent every spare moment making sketches.
“I had to draw,” he wrote. “It was the only way to keep my humanity.”
“Infinite Hope” won the 2020 Boston Globe–Horn Book Award for Nonfiction and a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award.
His many other awards included the Coretta Scott King–Virginia Hamilton Lifetime Achievement Award, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal and the New York Public Library’s Literary Lions Award.
A film about the artist/author titled “I Know a Man…Ashley Bryan” was produced in 2016.
Bryan’s influence was not limited to the art he created, Isaacs said.
“I think people in Maine don’t always see the selfless part of Ashley that encouraged some of the greatest people that Maine has seen in the art world take up Maine as a home or part-time home,” he said.
“When Ashley found Maine when he was just out of the service, he knew it was a place to share. And he knew it would be the better for getting more artists there. He knew that, despite bigotry and racism, if he could just attract these extraordinary people he came across in his life and bring them up to Maine, they would be better for the experience and Maine would be better, too.
“His friendship and nurturing, that was his gift,” Isaacs said. “For those of us who have had that influence of Ashley, it has been a treasure.”
Bryan loved meeting people and learning about them. Like Will Rogers, he never met a person he didn’t like. He enjoyed reading and telling stories to groups large and small, especially to schoolchildren.
Isaacs led the campaign to have Islesford’s elementary school named for Bryan in 2011.
“Above all else, Ashley was a nurturer, and what better institution than a school to have his name on,” Isaacs said.
He and his wife, Donna, also were leaders in the founding in 2013 of the Ashley Bryan Center, whose mission is to “preserve, celebrate and share broadly artist Ashley Bryan’s work and his joy of discovery, invention, learning and community.”
Maine Governor Janet Mills issued a statement following Bryan’s death, saying, “He was a wonderful, happy man with a deep, rich history, a great imagination and a beautiful, childlike soul. I am so thankful I was able to spend time with him last year. Over our lunch, he spontaneously recited Langston Hughes, Shakespeare’s love sonnets and other wonderful verses. His passing is a tremendous loss, but we are immeasurably better for his many, many gifts to our world.”
A memorial service for Bryan will be held on his birthday, July 13, on Islesford. Friends and admirers of his may share memories and notes via the Ashley Bryan Center website.