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Ashley Bryan: Beauty in Return

May 28, 2022 – December 31, 2022

Exhibition Dates

May 28, 2022 – December 31, 2022

Exhibitions are free with admission.


“If you put art into the world, you will get beauty in return.” –Ashley Bryan

The exhibition, Ashley Bryan: Beauty in Return, recognizes the significant and lasting contributions to Maine and American art by distinguished artist, author, storyteller and teacher Ashley Bryan, recipient of the Farnsworth Art Museum’s 2022 Maine in America Award. Bringing together examples of the artist’s work from throughout his long career, including paintings, illustrations, puppets and stained glass, the exhibition is a joyful celebration of the enduring power of art and the human spirit over adversity. 

Born in Harlem in 1923 and raised in the Bronx, Bryan first came to Maine in 1946 to attend the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. Later that summer, he visited Mt. Desert and the offshore Cranberry Islands. Captivated by the communal character of life on the islands, which reminded him of stories told by his Antiguan immigrant parents and grandmother, he returned to Little Cranberry—also known as Islesford—making it his longtime summer home before settling there year-round upon retiring from Dartmouth College in 1988. 

Widely honored within the field of children’s literature, Bryan is renowned as the author and illustrator of more than fifty books for young readers. Among his many awards are the Coretta Scott King–Virginia Hamilton Lifetime Achievement Award, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal, and the New York Public Library’s Literary Lions award. He is particularly noted for his work in bringing the oral tradition of African folk tales and African American spirituals to new audiences through his vibrantly illustrated books meant to be read and shared aloud. A gifted narrator, his lively call-and-response performances have captivated audiences worldwide.

Ashley Bryan’s lifelong love of music, poetry and art was fostered by his parents, who despite the deprivations of raising a large extended family during the depression encouraged his interests. At seventeen he was accepted to the prestigious tuition-free Cooper Union School of Art and Engineering, having been denied entry elsewhere because of his race. “However,” he later said, “I had learned early on from my parents that if you are doing something creative and constructive, never let anything or anybody stop you.” 

Drafted out of art school into the U.S. Army at age nineteen, he 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 he continued to draw, documenting his surroundings and life with his fellow soldiers, often stowing his art supplies in his gas mask. Returning to the U.S. in January 1946, he earned a degree in philosophy from Columbia University and then returned to Europe to study art on a Fulbright scholarship. 

In France in 1950, he had the occasion to draw the great cellist Pablo Casals during his first live performance after the war. The intensity of the experience “…gave me a sense of the rhythm of the hand,” Bryan recounts. “If I tap into that, then ALL—whatever I create in whatever form—is related. Whether I create a drawing, a painting, a puppet, or a sea-glass panel, all comes for the same inspired source: the rhythm of the hand. Revealing aspects of the mystery of being human is life’s inexhaustible research. Through the adventures of art, we find the meaning of our lives.”

Ashley Bryan’s home and studio on Islesford, surrounded by his beloved flower gardens and filled with his cherished collections of art and toys from around the world, are a continual source of inspiration for his art in all its forms. 

The museum is grateful to the collection of Oakland University School of Education and Human Services and curators Linda Pavonetti, Ed.D. and Jim Cipielewski, Ph.D., for their generous loan of works to the exhibition; and to the Ashley Bryan Center and its executive director, H. Nichols B. Clark, for their support, guidance, and assistance.

A schedule of Maine in America 2022 events, celebrating Ashley Bryan may be found here.