ISLESFORD, Maine — When I was a little boy in the early 1970s, too young to pedal a bike, I used to hide in the bushes and spy on artist Ashley Bryan.
I would walk up the grass driveway from the nearby house that my parents rented as Ashley was painting flowers outside his home. Ashley, noting my presence and taking care not to frighten me away, would pretend not to notice. He feigned talking to himself as he stood in front of his easel, but really he was talking to me.
“Nice day to be outside,” he would say, his powerful voice easily carrying across the sun-lit lawn as he brushed oil paint onto the canvas. “I sure do like being out here in the garden.”
My sister, three years older than me, ratted me out to our mom.
“Bill is spying on that man,” she complained, her brow furrowed with an older sister’s irritation. So up the road my mother went to see what the fuss was about.
That’s how my family got to know Ashley and, 40 years later, he remains a good family friend — as he is with many seasonal and year-round residents of Islesford, a small community 3 miles out from Mount Desert Island. He has even visited my parents in Atlanta where they live, one of numerous cities where he has been honored for his artistic and literary achievements, and has been a frequent dinner guest at their Islesford summer home.
So it was with some surprise this summer that, as a result of a lifetime retrospective exhibit of Ashley on Islesford, I and others first learned some of the details of his life. They are meaningful details that have drawn some emotional responses from people who have known Ashley, who is 91 years old, for decades.
“Some of the people have come to me with tears in their eyes about things they were reading [at the exhibit],” Ashley said during a recent interview at his house.
They are details about the racism he faced as a younger man and his experience as a soldier in World War II. Ashley admits he preferred not to tell other people about these aspects of his life, just as other people in other generations have avoided discussion of trying times they have faced.
“It’s natural,” Ashley said, seated at the dining room table of his home. Two ceramic mugs of coffee and small dishes of fruit, jellybeans and others snacks sat on the tidy table as he spoke.
“People turn from experiences which are problems in their minds, and they don’t want to focus on that,” he added. “They are trying to live an ordinary, normal life in certain ways, so they suppress those experiences.”
Ashley grew up in a time and place much different from his adopted island home on the Maine coast. Born in the summer of 1923 in Harlem, New York, to a large family that traced its roots to the Caribbean island of Antigua, he could not escape the conflicts of the era.
Growing up during the Great Depression, Ashley and his siblings were encouraged by his parents to learn how to draw and paint and play music. But in 1940, when Ashley was a 16-year-old applying to art schools in New York, he was told it would be “a waste to give a scholarship to a colored person.” He persisted and, with the help of several sympathetic teachers, he applied to and was accepted at Cooper Union in New York, which had a color-blind admissions process.
In 1942, his studies were interrupted by war. He received a draft notice from the U.S. Army and was assigned to a segregated stevedore unit, stationed first in South Boston and then shipped to Europe in 1943.
Ashley was taken aback by the cruelty and inhumanity of the war, in combat and in the way black soldiers were treated by white officers. Not well suited to life as a soldier, much less military battles, Ashley hid drawing materials in his gas mask and frequently sketched his fellow soldiers at work.
Those drawings, he said, stayed out of sight after he got out of the Army. It wasn’t until the mid-1980s, around the time he bought his own house on Islesford and was nearing the end of his teaching career at Dartmouth College, that he first told people he sketched what he saw during the war. Some of these drawings are included in the exhibit.
“Forty years after I had been out,” Ashley said. “I had never talked about it. Never.”
The adversity Ashley faced largely has been buried in the decades since by a substantial body of work that emphasizes the joy, pride and wonder that can be found in everyday life.His oil paintings most often feature scenes of brilliantly colored flowers in the garden outside his home. The dozens of puppets he has fashioned over the years, which prominently feature small animal bones, glass, wood, fabric and other items he has found around the island’s pebble beaches, often are modeled on characters from African folklore he learned through his parents and other relatives. The sea glass windows he has made with papier-mache depict biblical scenes and figures: Jesus, the Virgin Mary, the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, as well as others.
What he is best known for, however, and is the foundation of his national reputation are his children’s books. Ashley has colorfully illustrated more than 40 published books — not including those he made by hand as a child. Many of them are African folktales re-told in his own voice but also stories and poems written by others. He has won Coretta Scott King book awards for several, including “Beat the Story Drum;” “Pum-Pum,” a series of Nigerian folktales illustrated with woodcut prints; and more recently for “Beautiful Blackbird,” a Zambian folktale illustrated in paper collage.
Ashley said he especially enjoys his book projects because each one involves multiple outlets for his well of creative energy. His latest book project, due out next year, will feature paper collage illustrations of Langston Hughes poems.
“You’re just developing and finding ways, understanding yourself through what you do,” he said. “The books have meant everything to me in that way because they encompass reading, writing, drawing and also communicating with others.”
His enthusiasm for the stories and the illustrations he creates for them — not to mention the vigor with which he reads them aloud in evocative hollers and roars and squawks — have won him lifelong fans among the thousands of people who have heard him perform and many accolades from libraries and literary associations across the country.
He has received the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award and the Virginia Hamilton Lifetime Achievement Award. But perhaps the most prestigious honor came in 2008, when he was named a Literary Lion by the New York Public Library along with renowned writers Edward Albee, Nora Ephron and Salman Rushdie.
This side of Ashley, the one that finds delight in the patterns and rhymes of flowers and folktales, is the one that most people know. This is the side that makes up his bright, gregarious, outgoing personality and obscures the difficult experiences he had so many years ago.
Ashley said he has consciously cultivated this approach to life, marrying it with a work ethic of practice and persistence. He said he purposefully has maintained a childlike enthusiasm for creative pursuits — poetry, puppets, painting and even the thousands of toys he has collected over the years — as a way of interpreting and defining himself and the world around him.
“That desire to open up the curiosity and adventure of the child should never leave us, and we should never be ashamed of responding to things that we like,” he said.
Ashley said it was the time he spent studying in Europe after the war that helped shape his approach to his life and art.
In 1950, in a French town near the Spanish border, he sketched musicians over a series of rehearsals as they prepared to perform with the famous cellist Pablo Casals. With these drawings, he said, his technique developed a visual and physical rhythm that “opened the hand” and freed him from the more constrained and formal style to which he previously adhered.
“I knew if I could find the rhythm of whatever I was experiencing, that I could do all of my work and know who I am, keep trying to get to that core of who I am,” Ashley said. “And it didn’t matter if I was doing a painting, if I was doing a puppet, a sea glass panel, doing a book — all of it is trying to tap that inner mystery of who I am.”
The summer exhibit, Ashley’s first career retrospective, was organized by the new nonprofit Ashley Bryan Center and was presented by Acadia National Park and the Island Institute. It ran through September at the Islesford Historical Museum. But don’t worry if you missed that showing. It has been moved to the Blum Gallery at College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, where it reopened Oct. 10 and is scheduled to run through February.