Years ago, when my children, Jeff and Julie, were young, my family had the honor and privilege of spending an afternoon with artist/author/storyteller Ashley Bryan in his home on Little Cranberry Island off the coast of Mount Desert, Maine. That warm summer day, he greeted us at the mailboat dock; and as he leisurely walked along the dirt road toward his house telling my daughter tales in his fabled expressive storyteller voice, we continued ahead to his home where we had time to explore his many collections of toys, puppets, and beach combings set about on tables, shelves, and walls. As if in a grand emporium, every available inch of space was lovingly filled with seemingly endless, whimsical delights.
He took us through his studio, sharing his numerous work stations for the varied projects in process. I will always remember the fascinating illustrations and paintings, and the stained glass window along one wall of his studio, crafted of beach glass and black paper mache. Clearly, his inventiveness, playfulness and childhood wonder were alive and well.
When I learned that a selection of Ashley’s children’s book illustrations were on exhibit at the Portland Museum of Art (Painter and Poet, through November 25, 2018, Portland, Maine), I had to go so that I might yet again feel the amazement, respect and delight I experienced that day long ago. Seeing many of the same puppets created of scavenged materials that so magnificently came to life in his hands felt like greeting old friends.
I have long admired Ashley Bryan’s life work, for the challenges he overcame to become whom he was meant to be, for the interests and beliefs he so deeply explored, and for the enchanting joy and vibrant energy he has brought to all his art, writing and interactions with others—particularly children who came to adore him. As an award-winning “pioneer of African and African American representation in the children’s book medium,” he has published over 50 titles.
This man with the broad smile and good-hearted nature who moved seemingly effortlessly from one medium or creative style to the next, depending on the subject at hand, is now 95 years old. But I suspect he is still quite young at heart.
It was a beautiful exhibit, supplemented with boxes of many of his books that I took my time perusing. I am glad this distinguished museum provided the opportunity for people to come to know the work of this extraordinary creator. I only would have loved to see even more of his illustration work on display! I came away inspired and grateful that my family had the opportunity to meet this incredible man in person at his home. Now, as an author, artist, illustrator and teacher myself, I am forever grateful to Ashley as a role model. Dear Ashley, thank you for continuing to be an inspiration for me, my family, and for so many others. You are a true treasure of Little Cranberry Island and beyond.