Ashley Bryan, a longtime artist and resident of coastal Maine who as a soldier survived D-Day in France during World War II and overcame racism to become a well-known children’s book author and illustrator, has died.
Bryan, who has lived on the offshore island of Islesford since the mid-1980s, died Friday in Texas, where he had been staying with relatives during the COVID-19 pandemic. He was 98 years old.
“The world has lost a wonderful person,” Bryan’s family of nieces and nephews said Friday evening. “In our lives there have been few people as special. His joy of discovery, invention, learning and community has had a profound impact on us all.”
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Bryan began studying and pursuing art as a calling in his teen years, and over the course of his 80-year career earned a national reputation as an illustrator of children’s books, some by other writers and some he wrote himself, often re-telling African folktales he had heard as a child.
He received Coretta Scott King awards for several of his books, among them “Beat the Story Drum: Pum-Pum,” a series of Nigerian folktales illustrated with woodcut prints, and “Beautiful Blackbird,” a Zambian folktale illustrated in paper collage. In 2017, he received Coretta Scott King honors and a Newbery Honor for “Freedom Over Me: Eleven Slaves, Their Lives and Dreams Brought to Life.”
He received the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award and the Virginia Hamilton Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2008, he was named a Literary Lion by the New York Public Library along with renowned writers Edward Albee, Nora Ephron and Salman Rushdie.
Bryan was born in 1923 and raised in Harlem in New York City, to a large family that traced its roots to the Caribbean island of Antigua. Growing up during the Great Depression, he and his siblings were encouraged by his parents to learn how to draw and play music.
In addition to his book illustrations, he was a prolific painter, often painting oil canvases of flowers outside his island home, and he fashioned dozens of hand puppets from shells, animal bones, beach glass, wood, fabric and other items he found on the island’s pebble beaches. Other works include a series of sea glass windows made with papier-mache that depict scenes and figures from the Bible.
In the 1950s, while in Maine to attend a summer program at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, he painted one of several frescoes that still stand at the South Solon Meeting House.
Bryan also taught art professionally, with stints at New York City’s Dalton School and Queens College, and at Philadelphia College of Art. From 1974 to 1988 he taught at Dartmouth College, after which he “retired” to Islesford to focus on his own work.
In 2019 the University of Pennsylvania reached an agreement with the island’s Ashley Bryan Center, which was founded in 2013 to preserve Bryan’s artistic legacy, to house his archive of works at the university’s Kislak Center.
The path Bryan traversed in pursuit of his artistic career was not easy. Despite showing talent at a young age, Bryan was told when he was 16 years old and applying to art schools that it would be a “waste” to give a scholarship to Black person. 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 based solely on each applicant’s portfolio.
A couple of years later, during World War II, he was drafted into the Army and fought in Europe. He hid drawing materials in his gas mask so he could sketch his fellow soldiers at work, and in June 1944, he was part of the D-Day invasion of Normandy, France, at Omaha Beach.
Bryan returned to Europe after the war to further his studies, and credited sketches he made of musicians at a festival in France with “opening his hand” and giving him a style and approach that remained with him for the rest of his career.
“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,” Bryan said in a 2014 interview with the Bangor Daily News. “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.”
There will be a memorial service for Bryan on Islesford this summer on July 13, which would have been his 99th birthday, his family said.