ISLESFORD — Established in 2013, the Ashley Bryan Center is dedicated to preserving, celebrating and sharing the work of the world-renowned island artist and author and “his joy of discovery, invention, learning, cultural understanding and community.” As part of its outreach, this summer the center is offering “A Visit with Ashley Bryan” at the Islesford Historical Society.
The exhibition, which runs June 23-Sept. 30, highlights Bryan’s remarkable life, from his childhood in the Bronx, through his studies at Cooper Union and his days as a soldier in a segregated unit in World War II, to his teaching at Dartmouth College, his award-winning children’s books and his life in Maine.
The exhibition was designed by Dru Colbert and Betts Swanton. Highlights include a special display related to Bryan’s interactions with the world-renowned cellist Pablo Casals. Visiting Europe in 1950 on a Fulbright Scholarship to further his art studies, he discovered Casals who, that year, had begun performing in France, just over the border from his native Catalonia.
“I would draw from the musicians rehearsing,” Bryan recalled. Trying to find his way in painting, his drawings of Casals represented “the first sense of momentum, of spirit, of feeling that was my own in painting and drawing.” At the end of each series he would send Casals a small hand-drawn book made in the tradition of the medieval manuscript. In return he would receive a thank-you from the master cellist.
Bryan discovered the Cranberry Isles while studying at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in 1946. When he later taught art at Dartmouth, he would spend his sabbaticals on the island. He first rented the home of artist Gretna Campbell on Great Cranberry and then moved to Little Cranberry in the 1950s, renting a room in a fisherman’s house, which had a large barn studio. He bought his own home on the island around 1980 and moved there full-time in 1987 after retiring from teaching.
“When I came to the island,” Bryan once told writer Susan Shetterly, “I touched on the sense of community immediately. If you get off the boat with a package, you don’t have to struggle with it. It will pass to one person. It will pass to the other person. It will be a chain of hands. And it has nothing to do with what they think of you—it is reaching out in terms of this sense of community.”
Over the years, Bryan’s island home has been the site of amazing creative work, from a host of award-winning children’s books to stained glass windows made from sea glass (a group of these depicting the life of Christ was installed in the Islesford Congregational Church last year).
Bryan’s career as an illustrator of children’s books began with a chance meeting with Jean Karl, the perceptive and supportive editor he worked with at Atheneum Books for three decades. He went on to write, illustrate and create numerous books, including compendia of African folk tales, collections of African-American spirituals and his own poetry.
The Islesford show features clips from a new Maine Masters video portrait of Bryan that will be coming out this fall. They show the artist engaged in three diverse art activities: making stained glass, printing a linoleum cut and creating a puppet.
The puppets are made out of materials Bryan finds on beachcombing forays on the coastal reaches of Little Cranberry. A new book about these astounding creations, Ashley Bryan’s Puppets: Making Something from Everything, is due out this summer. The format of the book, which features a poem for each puppet, is echoed in an interactive exhibit in the show: visitors are invited to match the poem with the puppet.
Turning 91 this July, Bryan has received many honors and awards over the years, but one of the greatest came from his home community. Three years ago the island decided to name its school the Ashley Bryan School.
Bryan once told the writer Donna Gold, “The arts are the most important thing for growing people and for creating a citizenry for whom you don’t have to make a jail.” He continues to travel around the country and to Africa where he has helped build schools and start libraries; he taps into “the spirit of what it is to be human” wherever he goes. His work as a teacher and artist led the poet Naomi Shihab Nye to refer to him as a “luminous force of nature,” adding, “I have wished many times that Ashley were running the world. It would be a happy world. No one would be having wars.”
“A Visit with Ashley Bryan” will have an opening celebration on July 5, 3-5 p.m. Visit www.ashleybryancenter.org for hours. The exhibition is a partnership of Acadia National Park and the Island Institute, with support from the Partridge Foundation and Simon & Schuster.