Artist Trivia: Ashley Bryan

Ashley Bryan, Family Gathering, Tremont Avenue, Bronx, NY, 1962, 48 x 48 in, gift of the Ashley Bryan Center

Who is this artist?

This artist was born in Harlem in 1923 and was raised in Bronx, NY. They expressed a lifelong love of music, poetry and art which was fostered by their parents, who despite the deprivations of raising a large extended family during the depression, encouraged this artist’s many interests. At 17 they were accepted to the prestigious, tuition-free Cooper Union School of Art and Engineering, having been denied entry elsewhere because of their race. They were drafted out of art school into the U.S. Army and served in a segregated unit as a member of the 502nd Port Battalion, landing at Omaha Beach in Normandy on D-Day. Throughout the war, this artist continued to draw, documenting their surroundings and life with fellow soldiers, often stowing their art supplies in their gas mask. After the war, this artist earned a degree in philosophy from Columbia University. This painter first came to Maine in 1946 to attend Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. Later that same summer, they visited Mt. Desert Island and the offshore Cranberry Islands. They were captivated by the communal character of life on the island, which reminded this artist of stories told to them by their Antiguan immigrant parents and grandmother.  This artist went on to teach art for many years at Dartmouth College. They were widely honored within the field of children’s literature, writing and illustrating some fifty books for children and receiving dozens of awards and honors, including the Coretta Scott King-Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement. This artist has put education at the heart of their endeavors. We celebrate this artist on July 13 on which would have been their 99th birthday.

Who is Ashley Bryan?

Ashley Bryan is the recipient of the Farnsworth Art Museum’s 2022 Maine in America Award, recognizing the significant and lasting contributions to Maine and American art he has made as a distinguished artist, author, storyteller, and teacher.  His body of work includes paintings, illustrations, drawings, puppets, woodcuts and stained glass. Perhaps his most well-known children’s book, Beautiful Blackbird  touches on appreciating one’s heritage and discovering the beauty within. 

Upon Ashley Bryan’s retirement, he moved fulltime to Islesford where he was surrounded by his beloved flower gardens and cherished collections of art and toys from around the world, which were a continual source of inspiration for his art in all its forms.  Whether working in pencil, watercolors, woodcuts, or with stones and sea glass that had washed up on the shore, he approached his work with a sense of wonder, similar to that he had as a child, ‘All the things that I came across I turned into art’ …‘my parents encouraged my love for creating, and so did my teachers. I was always encouraged to make whatever I could from the things I found.’  Ashley Bryan stated so beautifully,  ‘If you put art into the world, you will get beauty in return’.

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