Arts & Culture

Ashley Bryan and His Art

By Celina Simmons


Photo by Celina Simmons

The Portland Museum of Art is featuring an exquisite exhibit by a local painter and poet from Aug. 3 to Nov. 25. This past weekend a couple friends and I went to the museum to check it out, and we were not disappointed.

Ashley Bryan, although originally born in 1923 in the Bronx, has lived in Cranberry Isles, Maine, for the past 60 years. His love for making books and storytelling started when he was only six years old, and he has published over 60 books since his first publication of poems in 1967. He shared that he doesn’t remember a point in his life where he wasn’t drawing or painting.

When Bryan was a child, he noted the lack of African American characters in children’s books. Being the son of two American immigrants from Antigua, he wanted to change this. So, he took it upon himself to bring African and African American culture and experiences into his storytelling. He travelled to museums, festivals, and schools throughout America, South Africa, Kenya and Uganda to learn more about this culture.

When you first walk into the exhibit, your eyes get pulled straight to the puppets Bryan made for his storytelling. He grew up during the time of the Great Depression, and recalls sewing together pieces of fabric with his sister to make new clothes. He often used these techniques for his puppets, along with seashells, sea glass and other objects he could find along the ocean shore.

The next thing I noticed was the vibrancy of color throughout each piece. A lot of his artwork was collage-style, where he would put together bright pieces of paper to illustrate different parts of his stories. This technique gives the art beautifully clean depth while still keeping it simple on children’s eyes. Most of the art on display consisted of original pieces that Bryan used for his children’s books.

In the 1940s, Bryan “created a rich body of work” to incorporate into some of his stories, such as “The Ox of the Wonderful Horns and Other African Folktales” and “The Adventures of Aku.” This work used tempera paintings with red, ocher and black, directly referencing African paintings, sculptures, and masks. These sorts of pieces on display were breathtaking. You can see the precision of each stroke used to create the art. The red contrast with the ocher allows the viewers to be consumed by the traditional African style of it. Bryan says “I hope that my work with the African tales will be… like a bridge reaching across distances of time and space.”

A couple more of Ashley Bryan’s pieces that stood out to me were portraits of enslaved people he had come across in slave-related documents. Bryan wanted to restore the humanity that was taken from these people with his art because the documents only listed each person’s name and price, treating them as if they were solely property. He did this by imagining their histories and dreams and through his poetry and portraits in his book “Freedom Over Me.”

Along with his original artwork, the exhibit provides copies of Bryan’s children books, such as “What a Wonderful World” and “Beautiful Blackbird.” Viewers of the exhibit can sit down and read his stories while referencing some of the illustrations with the originals on the walls around them.

Ashley Bryan saw a void in children literature and decided to fill it. The outcome became art in the making, and hopefully opened up more doors for African tradition and culture to be brought into children books. I found his work to be very original and inspiring, and I am sure others would say the same. The exhibit is open to the public until Nov. 25, and I highly recommend you check it out!

Categories: Arts & Culture

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