Ashley Bryan

By: Carl Little

The gray-shingled exterior of award- winning children’s book artist and author Ashley Bryan’s modest home on Little Cranberry Island, also known as Islesford, off the coast of Downeast Maine belies what lies inside: an eye-popping floor-to-ceiling array of art and craft, including a multitude of puppets and dolls, mobiles, whirligigs, folk art paddle toys and crèches from around the world.

“I regard my whole home as my studio,” says Bryan. All of his creative endeavors, he notes, are focused in areas in the house where he keeps the materials to do the work, be it assembling puppets, painting, printmaking, turning sea glass into stained-glass panels, writing or doing book illustration.

Much of the work takes place in a well-lit studio at the top of a short set of stairs. There, Bryan paints glorious still lifes of zinnias and cosmos. He also takes his easel outdoors, to paint dahlias in a neighbor’s garden. “I always have my drawing pad,” he says. The creative act “never ends, in one form or another.”
Bryan is renowned for the hand puppets he makes from objects combed from the shores of his island. Kept in cartons, the mussel and clam shells, animal bones, bits of fishnet and other odds and ends are assembled with brilliant ingenuity into magical figures that are brought alive by the artist in performance. The 2014 book Ashley Bryan’s Puppets: Making Something from Everything highlights his puppet mastery.

These days, Bryan is focused on four book projects. One is complete: illustrations to a collection of Nikki Giovanni’s poems, I Am Loved, which, the artist reports, will be available by Valentine’s Day. He is also working on a World War II memoir; his editor at Simon & Schuster, Caitlyn Dlouhy, has the text and is reviewing images he made during the war when he served in an all-black battalion. Bryan is also making illustrations for a book of Langston Hughes’s short poems and a selection of children’s verse by the 19th-century English poet Christina Rossetti.

“Each day you feel the call to work on different aspects of your bodies of work,” says Bryan. “Say you finish painting,” he explains, “now you feel like working on a puppet, or a sea glass panel.” A group of his panels, inspired by the life of Christ, was installed in the Islesford Congregational Church in 2014.

One of Bryan’s friends, master oboist Sally Bloom, has been raising funds to commission Maine-based composer Aaron Robinson to write an African American requiem. The piece for chamber orchestra and a children’s choir will feature recordings of Bryan reading passages from his books and other works. “[Robinson] will decide how to use the words with the music and make it a stage drama,” Bryan explains.

Bryan first came to the Cranberry Isles while studying at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in 1946. Later, as an art professor at Dartmouth College, he spent sabbaticals there. He moved to Islesford full-time in 1987 after retiring from teaching.

The artist has received many honors and awards over the years, yet one of the greatest came from his home community: In 2012 the island renamed its elementary school the Ashley Bryan School. At age 94, Bryan has cut back on his travels, yet he still made it to the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta last summer for the premiere of a play based on his book The Dancing Granny.
Bryan’s life work will be carried on through the Ashley Bryan Center, which is dedicated to preserving, celebrating and broadly sharing his work as well as his joy of “discovery, invention, learning and community.” In 2016, a Storyteller Pavilion, a freestanding meditative space built on his Islesford property, became the permanent home for some of his sea glass window panels; it will also serve as a display space for rotating shows of his work.

Poet Naomi Shihab Nye once referred to Bryan as a “luminous force of nature,” adding, “I have wished many times that Ashley were running the world. It would be a happy world. No one would be having wars.”

Carl Little’s latest book is Philip Barter: Forever Maine (Marshall Wilkes).

Image: Ashley Bryan in his studio working on the illustration Water-Front Streets for his book Sail Away, poems by Langston Hughes. Courtesy of Rose Russo.

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