Ashley Bryan felt grateful to be back on Little Cranberry Island. He had spent a few days in the steamy city for the opening of his new exhibition at the Portland Museum of Art, and made the journey back across the cool water to his island home just as soon as possible.

He loved meeting people in Portland, he said, but there’s no place he’s more comfortable than on Little Cranberry, where he has lived year-round for 31 years, since his retirement in 1987 from Dartmouth College. Now 95, he first came to Islesford – the village on Little Cranberry – in 1946 while attending the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture.

A painter, illustrator, poet, puppet-maker and all-around arts philosopher who has lived near every day of his life with the joy of a child – always open and eager for new discoveries, a new poem or a new friend – he takes none of his time for granted and, lately, especially the time he spends at home. Home is where he keeps his studios and where he does his work. The island is where he needs to be.

Bryan has made concessions to age but is still making art, still illustrating children’s books and still spreading goodwill at every turn. He goes about it a little more slowly, though he has hardly slowed down, and he has come to recognize the wisdom of visiting family in Texas during the deep winter months.

“Oh, I’m doing fine,” he said in response to a question about how he’s feeling. “My right knee is rather weak and not that dependable, so I have cut back on my travels. I do very few programs now. But I feel fine. I am working on a number of books, and one of them may be ready within the month.”

Ashley Bryan, shown in 2014, has won a Newbery honor Award.

That would be a book of collages inspired by the poems of Christina Rossetti. He’s also working on a larger project about his time in World War II, when he served in the segregated Army. Seventy-four years ago this month, Bryan was on Omaha Beach in France, helping the Allies maintain their hard-won foothold of sand that enabled them to advance through France and onto Germany.

He’s also collaborating with Maine composer Aaron Robinson on an African-American requiem for chamber orchestra, choir and spoken voice. Robinson, who lives in Alna, performed the piece for Bryan on the island in July. He’s calling it “A Tender Bridge: An African American Requiem,” based on a Bryan quote: “I always confuse the past and the future, the way I mix up death and life – they are connected only by a tender bridge. This is why stories are at the heart of civilization.”

It tells the musical story of life and death, and the tender bridge that joins both. In African-American culture, death is not an ending but a bridge to the afterlife, to be celebrated and not mourned.

Among the new work he’s undertaken, the requiem and his first major museum exhibition in Maine – a traveling show that originated at Atlanta’s High Museum – Bryan is enjoying something of a creative burst, coupled with renewed attention on his life and career thanks to filmmaker Richard Kane’s recent documentary, “I Know A Man … Ashley Bryan,” which has received frequent screenings across Maine and regionally.

“I don’t seek it out,” Bryan said of the attention he is receiving. “I just do my work, and if by chance someone wants to show it, I’m always honored.”

The Portland show, “Painter and Poet: The Art of Ashley Bryan,” includes the original art from 14 of the more than 50 children’s books that he’s written or illustrated. Included here are tender, heartfelt linoleum-cut prints from his book of early African folktales; colorful, energetic illustrations from “The Dancing Granny”; and eloquent, evocative collages from “Beautiful Blackbird.” There’s also a suite of mixed-media portrait-illustrations from “Freedom Over Me: Eleven Slaves, Their Lives and Dreams Brought to Life by Ashley Bryan,” a 2016 national bestseller that won a Newbery Honor, a Coretta Scott King Honor award and a Boston Globe Horn Book Award.

The exhibition also includes a few of Bryan’s World War II sketches and selection of puppets that he makes from found objects that wash ashore on the island. It does not include his paintings or the stained-glass windows that he makes from sea glass. That’s because the genesis of this exhibition fell under the aegis of the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Massachusetts and was part of a larger three-year initiative focusing on book art, said Nichols Clark, founding executive director of the Ashley Bryan Center on Little Cranberry. Now in its fifth year, the center’s mission is to tell Bryan’s story through his art and find ways to share “his joy of discovery, invention, learning and community.”

The exhibition emphasizes Bryan’s role in reflecting African-American culture in children’s books. Daniel Minter, a Portland artist of color who also illustrates children’s books, said Bryan’s books were his first awareness of children’s books that told stories about brown and black kids with dignity and respect.

Front cover illustration (1974) from “Walk Together Children: Black American Spirituals,” linoleum cut on rice paper, 7 by 8 inches.

Bryan was a pioneer in that regard, Clark said. “Certainly Ashley was one of the early artists to do that. With his book on spirituals in 1974, he was educating everybody. As he said, ‘I could go into a school and say, Does anybody know a Negro spiritual, and silence. But I would say, Does anybody know ‘Go Tell It on the Mountain’ and ‘When the Saints Go Marching In,’ and they would sing me down.’ ”

“Painter and Poet” also offers a small glimpse into Bryan’s World War II years and a hint at his next big project. He was 19 and about to finish up art school at Cooper Union in New York when he was drafted. He used his war experience as an exercise to practice art and remain in touch with his basic human instincts as a joyful, social person. He made drawings of his friends and fellow soldiers, often while they relaxed and socialized and almost never during the adverse circumstances of war. He kept paper in his gas mask and sketched during breaks – and often while on duty, Clark said.

“He was not going to let the war get in the way of his pursuing his professional goal. He was driven to create this work. He would be challenged by his officers about drawing rather than doing things they thought were conventional, but his company mates all protected him,” Clark said. “They respected him.”

These drawings are part of a larger World War II project that began, simply, as a memoir and has grown into an illustrated book that will be more encompassing. Throughout the war and for many years that followed, Bryan corresponded by letter with a friend from art school, Eva Brussel. They were classmates at Cooper, but Brussel had to move to California because of health complications.

From that time until her death a few years ago, she and Bryan exchanged letters. In 2003, Brussel returned the bulk of the letters, recognizing their personal and historical importance as an archival record of an artist at war and his evolution over time. She wrote to him, “I have kept all of your correspondence, including your war letters. It think they might be important, so I am returning them to you.”

Bryan’s ability to return to his own writing from long ago corresponded with his first attempt to make paintings based on his wartime drawings. He began that process in the early 2000s, and it continues, Clark said. “He has created some joyous paintings based on those drawings.”

Collage of cut colored paper with mixed media on paper, ca. 2002, from “Beautiful Blackbird,” 10 3/8 by 18 7/8 inches

The new, larger project now includes Bryan’s memoir and war drawings and reproductions and excerpts of his letters, which were written with calligraphic flair and powerfully poetic language, as well as photos and perhaps some paintings.

In addition, Clark has interviewed one of Bryan’s commanding officers, Martin Hayden, whose son lives in Brunswick. Hayden kept diaries and photos, and is sharing them with Bryan for the project.

And then there’s the requiem, a massive undertaking in itself. Robinson responded to a commission request from a consortium coordinated by one of Bryan’s longtime friends, Sara Bloom, who envisioned a monumental piece of music that celebrated Bryan’s life, career and giving spirit. Creative Portland served as the fiduciary agent for the project, enabling fundraising and tax-deductible gifts.

An Emmy-nominated composer, Robinson has just completed a 13-movement, 90-minute requiem based on Bryan’s writings that uses jazz, ragtime, Negro spirituals, Southern hymns and other musical idioms, along with a full choir, gospel choir, children’s choir, orchestra jazz ensemble and multiple narrators.

Robinson called it a parallel to Leonard Bernstein’s Mass in its format, with characters that take the form and role of storytellers, participants and soloists, who represent of all humankind traveling through life.

Bryan’s voice, only heard via recording, represents the answers to questions and gives comfort, shows guidance and offers unconditional love.

“But more importantly, he is the voice of God,” Robinson said.

It begins with one of Bryan’s favorite quotes, “Let us walk together, children,” and ends with another favorite: “There’s a great camp meeting in the promised land!”

Bryan granted Robinson permission to use his writings and collaborated in pairing poems by Nikki Giovanni and Langston Hughes and in choosing his favorite Biblical scriptures. Bloom is working to line up performances of the piece, which Robinson finished this spring and performed for Bryan on his piano on the island in July.

It was a magical, memorable moment, he said.

“I played the score while he read his own text,” Robinson said. “At the end of the movement, ‘What Then Shall I Say, Poor Child That I Am?’ he said, ‘That was so beautiful, I could cry.’ It was one of the most meaningful moments of my career.”

 

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