Interdisciplinary artist and celebrated children’s book author Ashley Bryan finds inspiration off the coast of Maine.
The mail boat ferries passengers and provisions from Northeast Harbor, Maine, to Islesford. Only six miles from the mainland, the island feels worlds away from nearby Bar Harbor, with its bustling tourist shops and restaurants. About 50 or 60 people live there year-round, with five times that number during the summer season. Fishing is the only industry; stacks of lobster traps line the dock.
There’s not much to explore on this quiet island, also called Little Cranberry, which seems quaintly stuck in the past: a cozy dock restaurant and shack-sized convenience store, a couple of galleries, a historical museum run by Acadia National Park. Yet stroll up the main road, past gray-shingled houses offset by surprisingly lush and colorful gardens, then down a grassy path behind Islesford Congregational Church, and you’ll find a new building—in keeping with the island style, but incongruous in its content. This is the Storyteller Pavilion, which celebrates the life and work of Ashley Bryan, the 94-year-old artist and award-winning children’s book author who has made Little Cranberry his home for the past 30 years.
Jeanne Smith, a summer resident from Massachusetts who’s volunteering at the pavilion for the day, shows off the rack of books, including Let it Shine, Beautiful Blackbird, and Freedom Over Me; the paintings, old and new; and the folkloric puppets and elaborate, biblical sea-glass panels, both created with materials found on the island. There’s also a glass case filled with toys, from wooden Russian nesting dolls and African figurines to a plastic character from South Park—a sample of the approximately 10,000 toys that Bryan has collected in his travels.
“Have you met Ashley yet?” she asks. “I wish there were more of him. The world wouldn’t be in the mess that it is today.”
Across the road is Bryan’s house. A small, handwritten sign that reads “Welcome Home! Family!” is posted on the storm door. Walk in and you’re overwhelmed by a wonderland of model planes, marionettes, and mobiles dangling from the cathedral ceiling; tapestries and paintings covering the walls; shelves overflowing with books and knickknacks. Every surface is covered with dolls and animal figures and other toys of all kinds. And in the center of it all, at an equally cluttered wooden dining table, sits Ashley Bryan, quietly reading a book of poems by Rilke. A solitary black man on a tiny island in the whitest state in the country. A man whose door is always open, despite having had so many closed on him. A man who’s shared so many stories, with his own yet to be fully told.
Born in 1923 and raised in the Bronx by artistically minded parents, Bryan was drawing seriously at an early age. He had planned to study art after high school, but while his portfolio was always well received, he was denied admission to art schools because of his race. “They said it would be a waste to give a scholarship to a colored person,” he remembers. “I knew I wanted to go further, but didn’t know how I was going to do it.” His high school teachers, who encouraged his work, told him about the tuition-free Cooper Union School of Art and Engineering in New York City, which had a blind exam. “They told me, ‘They do not see you there.’ I don’t know where I’d be today if it hadn’t been for that phrase.”
But Bryan would soon face racism again. In 1943, his third year at Cooper Union, he was drafted into the army, which was then racially segregated. As African Americans were largely restricted to support units, Bryan worked on the docks in Boston and Glasgow, eventually becoming the highest-ranking NCO in his company, commanding 200 soldiers. (He turned down opportunities for promotion to remain in a position where he could protect his men.) Landing on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day, Bryan grappled with the irony of battling fascism in Europe while simultaneously confronting intense bigotry from the U.S. Army’s white officers. “Segregated means putting people down, considering them inferior,” he says. “Fascism was also about the inferiority of other people—that you could feed them into ovens for any reason, physical or psychological.”
Bryan kept in touch with his humanity by sketching, using any materials he could find—even toilet paper—and hiding them in his gas mask. “I always drew,” he recalls. “Even when the officers challenged me, I said, ‘Put me in the guardhouse. I’ll never stop.’” After the war, he completed his degree at Cooper Union, then attended Columbia University on the GI Bill to study philosophy. “I wanted to find answers to why man chooses war,” Bryan says. “But you get more questions, not answers, whenever you seek anything that’s deep about life.”
He says this with one hand still resting on the book of Rilke poems, his long fingers lightly stroking the cover. As a young artist, Bryan was so moved by the poet’s lyrical verse, striving to reconcile beauty and suffering, that he went to the University of Freiburg on a Fulbright scholarship to study Rilke in German. “You can always translate the meaning and feeling of a poem and love it,” he says, “but you can’t translate the sound.” He pauses and, in a voice holding traces of its earlier honeyed resonance, recites from memory: “‘For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror that we’re still just able to bear, and why we adore it so is because it serenely disdains to destroy us.’” He pauses again. “You can work your whole life trying to get it.”
Bryan first came to Maine in 1946 after winning a residency at the newly established Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. It was during that summer that he discovered the Cranberry Isles. “Sometimes on weekends we’d go to Acadia National Park,” he says, “and you’d look out and see the islands. The experience was so wonderful, I asked a Maine student to find a place for me.” Bryan spent 40 summers on the islands, first on Great Cranberry, then moving to the smaller island in the 1950s after friends bought a summer place there. When Bryan retired from teaching at Dartmouth College in 1988, he decided to make Islesford his year-round home.
What Bryan loved about Islesford, beyond its inspiring beauty, was the feeling of community he experienced during those summers. “When I first came to the island, I had a carton of my things,” he says. “As I stepped out of the boat, somebody reached for the box and then handed it to another person. I looked and thought, oh, it’s a chain of hands, just like the tenement house in the Bronx. So I was at home right away.”
But according to his longtime friend Henry Isaacs, hands weren’t extended when Bryan tried to buy a house some 40 years later. “It wasn’t overt racism,” says Isaacs, a painter who has owned a home on Islesford since the early 1980s. “It was more polite. Many of the islanders had never met a black person before. They were intimidated. They didn’t understand why he was there. It’s not pretty for somebody who’s different,” he adds. “Yes, in the summer you can get along, but in the winter it’s a whole other world.”
Despite being Bryan’s closest friend, Isaacs says that they’ve barely discussed the issue of race on the island. “Ashley doesn’t like to dwell on such stuff,” he says. “He’s doggedly tried to shape out of the community what he preaches in his books: a sort of ideal place where everybody is tolerant. Sometimes it’s at his own cost.”
“He’s constantly sharing himself, yet I know he feels isolation there,” agrees Daniel Minter, another friend of Bryan’s who’s also an illustrator of children’s books featuring people of color. “But it’s important to be in a place where you can create your work. He found this island and was determined to stay there, even if it was hard at times. He can remain an artist; that’s been his struggle all his life. He’s still struggling.”
Bryan’s home is a testament to how much Islesford has nurtured him as an artist. Against his caretaker’s advice, he slowly gets up from his seat, removing the nasal tube that tethers him to a nearby oxygen tank, to show off his studios. As independent as he can be, Bryan has needed live-in help since having multiple strokes in the fall of 2016. He also suffers from congestive heart failure, and likely has a brain tumor—conditions you’d never suspect, given his overall acuity.
A back room on the first floor is where Bryan works on his puppets and sea-glass panels, examples of which fill the space. “Everything comes from the island,” he says, gesturing toward the bird skulls by the windowsill and the sea-smoothed bits of glass on the worktable. “From walking along the shore; picking up shells, bones, glass; and getting these ideas.” Near the doorway, dozens of gray, heart-shaped rocks are piled on top of a desk and small wooden ironing board. “People like to bring me those,” he says, his face lit up by one of his easy smiles.
Bryan then carefully climbs the stairs to his painting studio. From the top landing, you can survey the full extent of his toy collection. It’s an unsorted international community, where a black Santa doll, Japanese Bunraku puppet, and Dracula action figure peacefully commingle. “Whenever I saw something I liked in my travels, I’d bring it home,” he says. “I just enjoy seeing the way people make things.”
The window-filled upstairs studio is bathed in light. There are finished canvases stacked everywhere; an easel overlooks a neighbor’s flower garden, the recurring subject of Bryan’s summer work. “During the summer, I’m outdoors painting from the gardens completely,” he says. While trapped indoors in the winter, Bryan creates work that is equally vibrant—a dramatic shift from the muted palette of his early paintings. He walks over to a tall flat file cabinet and opens a drawer. Five colorful tempera paintings, each about the size of a small book, are lined up in a row. Some feature people; others smiling, fanciful animals. “I choose one every winter and make a bigger painting from it,” he says. At the end of the row is a handwritten note that says “Contemplation tempera paintings. A Daily Greeting.” “There’s so much turmoil in just waking up,” Bryan explains. “You always have to work the ways of quiet into your life.”
Back downstairs, Bryan reconnects his oxygen and returns to the table, but not before rummaging through some boxes to grab a couple of the more than 50 books he’s published since 1962. “My feeling was more toward opening up the world of books to children than to adults,” says Bryan, who never had children of his own. The first African American to publish a children’s book as both author and illustrator, Bryan initially looked to African folktales and spirituals as his sources, employing his love of poetry and artistic skills ranging from painting to linocut to collage for his imagery. “The songs from black American slaves are such an inspiring example of people under tremendous odds giving something beautiful of themselves,” he says. “I wanted to share that with children.”
In 2016, Bryan confronted the subject of slavery head-on with his book Freedom Over Me. “There was an auction about 10 years ago in Northeast Harbor of Civil War paraphernalia and slave-related documents,” he says, “and I bought a document for the purchase of some slaves. They just give you the name and the price.” He pulls the book from the pile on the table and opens it, revealing a detail of the document on the inside cover. “I did a portrait of each,” he says, “and I cut it out and pasted it on the documents. Then I imagined I asked them to tell me their story. After they did, I said to them, ‘If you were not a slave, what would your dream be?’
“It meant everything to me to try to make them human,” he continues, “to give them a chance to speak and tell something. You write it through tears.”
The power and beauty of Freedom Over Me won Bryan his first Newbery Honor, which he adds to other accolades, including several Coretta Scott King Book Awards for illustration, a Laura Ingalls Wilder Award for his contribution to American children’s literature, and two American Library Association career literary awards. Yet even with all of that industry recognition, it’s difficult to find his work in Maine bookstores.
“He’s a national treasure,” says Minter, “and should be in the stores and schools here. But when they see the black child on the cover, they think it’s only for black children.” Caitlyn Dlouhy, Bryan’s editor at Atheneum, one of Simon & Schuster’s imprints for young readers, agrees that his work has been pigeonholed. “He’s fought that, we’ve fought that, and everyone who loves Ashley has been fighting that,” she says. “His books are for all children.”
The Newbery Honor, Dlouhy says, has made a visible difference in that fight. “Bookstores that hadn’t previously carried his books, not knowing if they had the right audience for them, suddenly are embracing them. You’ve never seen more weepy people in a publishing house than when we heard about Freedom winning a Newbery Honor,” she adds, “knowing how many kids would finally get to see this gorgeous book.”
The Newbery may have elevated Bryan’s national stature, but it was a far smaller local honor that touched his heart. In 2011 Isaacs submitted a proposal to name Islesford’s one-room schoolhouse for Bryan. Many residents were opposed, thinking the school should be named for someone raised on the island. But when a group of young students, who made art in special school projects with their welcoming neighbor, took the initiative and picketed the vote in favor of the recognition, enough residents were convinced to pass the motion. The children understood that Bryan’s island roots were deep enough.
These days, it’s hard not to see Bryan’s mark on Islesford. In addition to the school renaming, two of Bryan’s sea-glass panels, which feature biblical narratives interspersed with flowers, adorn the Congregational church. And then there’s the Storyteller Pavilion. “It was Ashley’s idea,” explains Isaacs. “It’s built on his land, and is meant to show off the kind of work he produced on the island.”
“What’s wonderful about the Storyteller Pavilion,” says Bryan, “is that it’s so in keeping with the island. So beautiful. It’s so simple how it houses the world.”
The construction of the pavilion was made possible by the Ashley Bryan Center, a nonprofit created in 2013 by Isaacs and other friends and family members of Bryan’s to preserve and promote his legacy. “Ashley hoped we could continue his teaching, continue bringing people together, and have that kind of joy that he infuses in his work spread to a larger population,” says Isaacs.
For Bryan, the center is less about celebrating his work than showing others, especially children, that they can make their own, no matter the circumstances. “I think there’s nothing that could make a person happier than having what you do inspire others to be creative,” he says. “It means everything to make something of your own. You know, just sit awhile and create something.”
Ashley Bryan–artist, illustrator
Ashley Bryan’s downstairs studio space. Photo by Izzy Berdan