By Tim Jackson
Ashley Bryan was a remarkable artist and legendary figure in Maine and New York who passed away at the beginning of February.
Before the pandemic hit in 2019, I visited Islesford, also known as Little Cranberry Island, one of the five Cranberry Isles several hours up the Maine coast. After renting a barge to haul video equipment across the bay, we landed at the island, unpacked the gear, and loaded it into a car lent to us by local minister Tom. From there, the crew and I moved to a small Congregational church. I was shooting an interview with artist and author Ashley Bryan for a documentary featuring nonagenarians. Everybody knew Ashley on this tiny isle. In fact, everybody seemed to know everybody. Ashley passed away earlier this month at the age of 98 in Sugar Land, TX, at the home of his niece.
His family came from Antigua in the West Indies and moved to New York, where he was born in Harlem, one of six children. He spoke in a strong, clear voice about being raised in the city: “I was born with a brush in my hand. I was always being praised for my art, and so from the very beginning, there’s been nothing else,” he declared.
The genesis of his style began when he and his sister got hold of sample books of fabrics from upholstery stores; they proceeded to sew together quilts, skirts, and jackets.
“I was always taking things that were thrown away and reworking and converting them. That has been my life on the island. Whatever I pick up along the shore, I have recreated in some way,” he explained.
In 1943, he did a stint in the army, landing in 1944 with an all-Black battalion in Normandy three days after the invasion. He spent his service in France and Belgium, filling sketchbooks with pictures. After that, he studied philosophy at Columbia University and went on to win a Fulbright scholarship to study in Germany. He then taught at colleges, high schools, and elementary schools. But most of his life was spent on the island.
“I won a scholarship to paint in Maine from the Skowhegan School of Art. It was so wonderful painting outdoors. So I asked the students to find me a place to live,” he recalled. “I knew there were less than one percent of Black people in Maine. But when I arrived, someone took my box and carried it for me. This was a community, just like my Bronx community. Everyone helps everyone. I felt at home right away. That’s what I believe: wherever you are, create community.”
Bryan published several illustrated children’s books, including Freedom Over Me, Sail Away, Beautiful Blackbird, Beat the Story-Drum, Pum Pum, Let It Shine, Ashley Bryan’s Book of Puppets, and What a Wonderful World. “I made my first single edition at age five. So, from age five to 95, I have been publishing children’s books,” he said with a grin. Mainly, he drew from poetry: “Langston Hughes, Nikki Giovanni, Eloise Greenfield, and the Black poets are my inspiration. I wanted to open the work done by Black artists and include images of Black people.” His best-known book, Beautiful Blackbird, was published when he was 81.
He spoke of memorizing “endless numbers” of his favorite poems in German, French, and English. He passionately recited the Hughes poem, “Mother to Son,” and another in German. Finally, in a rich Scottish accent, he launched into Robert Burns’s “John Anderson, My Jo”:
John Anderson my jo, John,
When we were first acquent,
your locks were like the raven
Your bonnie brow was brent;
But now your brow is beld, John,
Your locks are like the snaw,
but blessings on your frosty pow,
John Anderson, my jo!
Inspired by medieval churches he saw in Europe, Bryan began to collect sea glass and create faux stained glass windows. “People used to dump glass in the ocean from beer, soda bottles, whatever. So I brought them home and used papier-mâché that would dry and hold the glass in place.” Several of his brilliant, meticulously constructed mosaic pieces are on display at the Islesford Congregational Church.
Bryan’s output was prodigious. His home and studio are filled with artifacts, collectibles, paintings, puppets, sculptures sitting on floors and shelves, hanging from the ceiling, mounted on walls. It is a place that radiates inspiration. About being an artist, he said, “Remain open to what you do not know and that will be freshly experienced, and that will be the experience of art.”
Bryan was a profoundly spiritual person and made the best of his time in the world. In this, his last face-to-face interview, he said:
“This, talking with you, is the most important thing I could be doing because it’s all I have — this moment, this time. I don’t want to be lessened by thinking or wishing I could be here or there or somewhere else.”
And then looking earnestly at the camera he concluded, “How do we wake up when God has made another day for us? I know there’s something far beyond myself, and I’m not the one creating all that. I’m just experiencing all the gifts that I’m given. I give praise and thanks.”
Tim Jackson was an assistant professor of Digital Film and Video for 20 years. His music career in Boston began in the 1970s and includes some 20 groups, recordings, national and international tours, and contributions to film soundtracks. He studied theater and English as an undergraduate, and has also worked helter skelter as an actor and member of SAG and AFTRA since the 1980s. He has directed three feature documentaries: Chaos and Order: Making American Theater about the American Repertory Theater; Radical Jesters, which profiles the practices of 11 interventionist artists and agit-prop performance groups; When Things Go Wrong: The Robin Lane Story, and the short film The American Gurner. He is a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. You can read more of his work on his blog.