• Grace McKinney

The Wonder of Ashley Bryan: An Exhibit, Some Thoughts, and A List

As we so enthusiastically shared on our social media a few weeks ago, Gaby and I took a field trip up to Portland, ME, to see a small but incredibly thorough exhibit about the life and work of Ashley Bryan at the Portland Art Museum. I'll not dilly dally (Duckfat) talking about the food (The Holy Donut) we had while we were in town (Hot Suppa) and will instead just jump right in:

For the uninitiated, Ashley Bryan is an artist, poet, and children's book illustrator whose life and work span what could be multiple lifetimes. I had not encountered Ashley Bryan's work until I moved to Boston for graduate school. Nichols Clark, former curator and director of The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, graciously trusted me to help as a research assistant for The Ashley Bryan Center Archives. Every moment of working with the Center was an opportunity to learn and fall more deeply into the wonder-filled life of Ashley Bryan.

Though there's little I can say that others haven't already, it's worth spending a little time to tell you more about the artist at hand. A Fulbright scholar and living poetry anthology, Bryan pioneered a path for Black-centric children's literature and has received lifetime achievement awards for his work to celebrate and revere the Black and African experience. His work is permeated with exuberance, wonder, sincerity, and, most noticeably, color.

The exhibit, entitled "Painter and Poet: The Art of Ashley Bryan" at the Portland Museum of Art featured Bryan's work in nearly all media, ranging from his simple pen-and-ink drawings for The Dancing Granny (1975) to his collection of found-object puppets, made of anything from sea glass to gardening gloves. It also included a small glass case with a sampling of sketches from Bryan's time as a soldier in WWII, which he stashed inside his helmet as he traveled with his segregated battalion across Europe.

As we looked around at his sketches, collages, and puppetry, we were amazed by his deep and abiding love of humanity, both in its broad and individual sense. Each work of art reveals his human touch, connecting author to reader across the pages. He even includes images of the scissors he uses to cut each collage on the endpapers of his picture books, which serves not only to honor his mother (since he uses her old sewing scissors) but to offer his readers the chance to look and how and by whom this book was made.

Gaby shared that in her Montessori training, her trainer reminded the group that the Montessori method could be done with sticks and stones—its power lies in simplicity and naturalness in the human experience. Just so, Bryan's picture books and artwork are created from found objects, colored paper, and tempera paints; but, done in love, his work resonates deeply into the human experience and celebrates beauty in the ordinary.

For, as Bryan himself says, "If you put art into the world, you will get beauty in return."

Below you'll find a list of just a few of our favorite Ashley Bryan books. We hope you'll take some time to dig into these spectacular works of art!

Freedom Over Me: Eleven Slaves, Their Lives and Dreams, written and illustrated by Ashley Bryan

Inspired by a slave-trade document Bryan purchased at an auction, Freedom Over Me offers humanity to eleven people from whom it was taken, making them more than the sum of their sale. Bryan's poetry and portraits carve out real, human figures in both their day-to-day lives and their loftiest dreams.

Let It Shine: Three Favorite Spirituals by Ashley Bryan

One of several (as you'll see) books in Bryan's portfolio covering spirituals, Let It Shine combines intricate paper collage with the familiar tunes of, you guessed it, three beloved spirituals. His collage work always seems to strike me the most, and this one is no exception.

Beautiful Blackbird, written and illustrated by Ashley Bryan

One of Bryan's more well-known picture books, Beautiful Blackbird champions Blackness—that its presence enriches all the colors around it. The words in this one simply ache to be read aloud with fervor: Black is beautiful, uh-huh!

All Things Bright and Beautiful, illustrated by Ashley Bryan

An old Anglican hymn brought to life by Bryan's intricate paper collage, All Things Bright and Beautiful collects all creatures great and small into a stunning overview of the beautiful world around us: from pineapples to giraffes to children of every color.

Ashley Bryan's Puppets by Ashley Bryan and photographs by Rich Entel

We spent time looking through this picture book while we visited the exhibit because we were so struck by these puppets. Bryan, in his sensitivity towards humanity, names and creates a story for each and every one of his puppets. Through poetry and lush photography, Ashley Bryan's Puppets offers readers a chance to meet and examine these incredible figures and the found objects that hold them together.

Sail Away, poems by Langston Hughes and illustrated by Ashley Bryan

Bryan's love of poetry pervades his life: his presentations, his conversations, and his vast publications of poetry and song collections. Sail Away offers young readers a taste of Langston Hughes' work through a cluster of poems casting light on water. Yet again accompanied by Bryan's somehow fluid paper collage, Hughes' poems take on new life.

Walk Together Children & I'm Going to Sing, Vols I & II of Black American Spirituals

Whether or not you'll sing from these two volumes of spirituals, the black-and-white linocut illustrations are worth a song of celebration. Not only does Bryan's handiwork appear in the illustrations, though; he also hand-cut the musical notations for each and every spiritual. Reflecting the deep ache in which these spirituals were composed and sung, each paired linocut captures the song's call for freedom, hope, and joy.

Ashley Bryan's African Tales, Uh-Huh

This is one of several collections of African tales refreshed in Bryan's storyteller hand. He curated his favorite tales across multiple African traditions (previously published in other collections of his) and adorns them with three-toned tempera paintings, so carefully crafted they appear to be prints. Like any Ashley Bryan book, these chapter-long tales beg to be told, so gather a group and "beat the story drum, pum pum!"

And one that's we're very anxiously awaiting: his latest release, Blooming Beneath the Sun, due April 2019. We can only hope to be doing such incredible things at age ninety-five!

Though we're not sure where the next Bryan exhibit will pop up, we'll keep our eyes peeled so that more of you can come in contact with the man who loves poetry, artistry, children, and life so very deeply. Till then, get to know him by grabbing a few of these titles!

To learn more about Ashley Bryan or find more books by this author, visit The Ashley Bryan Center.

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