By Tim Jackson
Ashley Bryan was a notable artist and legendary figure from Maine and New York who passed away in early February.
Before the pandemic hit in 2019, I visited Islesford, also known as Little Cranberry Island, one of five Cranberry Islands several hours off the coast of Maine. After hiring a barge to transport video equipment across the bay, we landed on the island, unpacked the equipment and loaded it into a car loaned 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. Everyone knew Ashley on this little island. In fact, everyone seemed to know everyone. Ashley died earlier this month at the age of 98 in Sugar Land, TX at the home of her 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 loud and clear about his childhood in the city: “I was born with a paintbrush in my hand. I’ve always been praised for my art, and so from the very beginning, there’s been nothing else,” he said.
The genesis of his style began when he and his sister obtained fabric sample books from upholstery stores; they started sewing quilts, skirts and jackets.
“I was always taking things that had been thrown away and reworking and transforming them. This has been my life on the island. Everything I pick up along the shore, I have recreated in one way or another,” he explained.
In 1943 he made 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 won a Fulbright scholarship to study in Germany. He then taught in middle schools, 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 to paint outside. So I asked the students to find me accommodation,” he recalled. that there was less than one percent black in Maine. But when I got there, someone took my box and carried it for me. It was a community, just like my community in the Bronx Everyone helps everyone. I felt at home right away. That’s what I believe: wherever you are, create a community.
Bryan has 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 when I was five years old. So from five to 95 I published children’s books,” he said with a smile. He mainly draws from poetry : “Langston Hughes, Nikki Giovanni, Eloise Greenfield and black poets are my inspiration. I wanted to open up the work done by black artists and include images of black people. His best known book, beautiful blackbirdwas released when he was 81.
He talked about memorizing “endless numbers” of his favorite poems in German, French and English. He passionately recited Hughes’ poem, “Mother to Son”, and another in German. Finally, with a rich Scottish accent, he launches into “John Anderson, My Jo” by Robert Burns:
John Anderson my jo, John,
When we were first met,
your hair was like the crow
Your brow bonnie was brent;
But now your forehead is bandaged, John,
Your locks are like snow,
but blessings on your icy pow,
John Anderson, buddy!
Inspired by the medieval churches he saw in Europe, Bryan began collecting sea glass and creating faux stained glass. “People used to throw glass of beer, soda bottles, whatever. So I took them home and used papier mache which dried and held the glass in place. Several of his brilliant and meticulously constructed mosaic pieces are on display at the Islesford Congregational Church.
Bryan’s production was prodigious. His home and studio are filled with artifacts, collectibles, paintings, puppets, sculptures on floors and shelves, suspended from ceilings, mounted on walls. It is a place that breathes inspiration. About being an artist, he said, “Stay open to what you don’t know that will be freshly experienced, and that will be the experience of art.
Bryan was a deeply spiritual person and made the most of his time in the world. In this latest face-to-face interview, he said:
“That, talking with you, is the most important thing I can do because that’s all I have – this moment, this time. I don’t want to be diminished by thinking or wishing I could be here or there or elsewhere.
And then, looking seriously at the camera, he concluded, “How do we wake up when God has made another day for us? I know that there is something far beyond me, and it is not me who creates all this. I just experience all the gifts that are given to me. I give praise and thanks.
Tim Jackson was an assistant professor of digital film and video for 20 years. His musical career in Boston began in the 1970s and includes twenty bands, recordings, national and international tours and contributions to film soundtracks. He studied acting and English as an undergraduate, and has also worked haphazardly as an actor and a member of SAG and AFTRA since the 1980s. He has made three feature documentaries: Chaos and Order: Making American Theater on American repertory theatre; Radical Jesterswhich profiles the practices of 11 interventionist artists and agit-prop performance groups; When Things Go Wrong: The Robin Lane Storyand 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.