WATERVILLE — As a way to celebrate Black History Month, Waterville Creates! and a handful of community partners have created art kits that feature the work of Maine artist Ashley Bryan. 

The kit is inspired by Bryan’s award-winning book, “Beautiful Blackbird,” an adaptation of a story from the Ila-speaking people of Zambia.

Each art kit contains colored paper, a white card stock paper, a glue stick, a pencil, a pencil sharpener, a copy of “Beautiful Blackbird” and instructions to make a collage.

Bryan is an artist, writer and illustrator whose subjects are typically derived from the African American experience, which peaked the interest of organizers.

“It’s always great to promote Maine artists,” Patricia King, vice president of Waterville Creates!, said Monday during a telephone interview. “And he’s a nice example of someone who is working with African American themes to unite people through his illustrations in children’s books.”

The art kits will be distributed beginning at 4 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 25, at the Alfond Youth & Community Center at 124 North St. in Waterville. Some kits will be available for the Alfond Weekend Backpack Program and the Waterville Public Library’s “Library To Go” program.

Originally from New York City, Bryan attended the Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture in 1946. After years of teaching, Bryan retired in 1988 to Islesford on Little Cranberry Island in Hancock County, where he still lives today.

“’Beautiful Blackbird’ is a wonderful representation of Bryan’s spirit,” Shannon Haines, president and chief executive officer of Waterville Creates!, said in a prepared statement Monday. “His captivating storytelling and vivid collage work make this book a treat for all ages, and it is our hope that these art kits will inspire families to not only read and create together but also to learn more about Bryan’s work.”

In April, the nonprofit Waterville arts organization launched the Art Kits For All program as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Each month, the organization has worked with the Colby College Museum of Art, Kennebec Montessori School, Waterville Public Schools and the Family Violence Project to distribute art supplies to families at the Alfond Youth Center and the Downtown Waterville Farmers’ Market. 

So far, more than 3,000 kits have been distributed, according to organizers.

Holly Hubbard, an art teacher at Kennebec Montessori School in Fairfield, said the “Beautiful Blackbird” project was hatched during a discussion about encouraging greater diversity. 

At the Montessori school this year, “there’s been a lot of energy and initiative in developing more diversity, and inclusivity themes into the curriculum though staff training, and committee work,” Hubbard wrote Monday in an email. “With this effort in mind, (we) discussed the idea of coming up with a diverse artist, and coordinating project for February, in celebration of Black history month.

“Shannon Haines had recently done a Ashley Bryan-themed project with her children she later shared with us. We knew immediately it’d be a perfect fit for what we were hoping to accomplish.”

Hubbard noted Bryan also has works on display at the Colby Museum of Art, showing that “we try to be thoughtful about connecting regional artists, and works, whenever possible.”

Hubbard has been volunteering to make the monthly art kits since April, and said the ongoing effort has been a labor of love.

“The phrase ‘teach peace’ is very much held in practice (at Kennebec Montessori School),” she said. “I personally believe that inner peace can be found within the art-making process.

“When children or elders receive beautiful art materials to work with, they get an opportunity to become engaged, and focused. Curiosity is fed, hearts and hands connect and they perhaps get a chance to express their inner world in a new, interesting way.”

To coincide with the art kits, the Maine Film Center will be streaming Richard Kane’s 2016 documentary “I Know a Man…Ashley Bryan,” on its website throughout the month. The film was first featured at the Maine International Film Festival in 2016.

This month’s art kits were sponsored by the Colby College Museum of Art and the Children’s Book Cellar of Waterville.

Ongoing funding for the art kits program has come from MaineGeneral Health, Kennebec Savings Bank, Colby Center for the Arts + Humanities, Bangor Savings Bank, New Dimensions Federal Credit Union and Back Office Solutions.

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