Over the course of Ashley Bryan’s long career as a children’s book author and illustrator, he has received the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award, multiple Coretta Scott King Awards, the Arbuthnot Prize, and a Fulbright Scholarship. “None of them outdo any other,” he says, “and none are more important than the encouragement I got as a child from bringing home my first [homemade] books.”
Born in Manhattan and raised in a tenement apartment in the Bronx, Bryan cannot remember a time when he did not draw and paint. “Today I am doing what I was doing before kindergarten.” He describes his art as tapping something inside himself that provides a sense of validation, of being. “Drawing and painting, along with a love of poetry, has been my center.” He attended college at The Cooper Union in New York City, but during World War II was drafted into the Army while “in my third year into a segregated unit of stevedores, a port battalion.” He remembers toting a sketchbook in his backpack with his gas mask. “Any moment that was open to me, I would draw.”
In college one of Bryan’s fine arts professors warned him that there are areas of art in which you can make a good living, but “if you are composing music, if you are writing poetry, if you are doing painting and sculpture out of yourself, you must prepare yourself for two eight-hour days. One to earn your bread. One to keep growing as an artist.” Bryan knew early on that he loved teaching. As a teenager he was given a classroom in his church community and asked to share his talent for color and design, and his love of art. As an adult, he continued to teach painting, drawing, and design, first at Queen’s College in New York City, and later at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. Evenings were devoted to his own artistic growth. “I’ve been fortunate. Teaching has put bread on the table and met all the monthly needs. Nothing that I’ve gotten from books or painting has gone for that. That has always been extra that I can use to help others.”
Bryan’s passion for poetry and the history of black people inform all of his work. For example, the seed for Beautiful Blackbird came from a Zambian folktale in which birds of all colors come together to decide who is the most beautiful. Blackbird wins the prize because he is the most black. “I had grown up with the stories that black is the lousy color. It’s all that’s left. It’s what you get,” Bryan says. “So here was a chance to do a story which was celebrating black.”
Bryan calls the spirituals of African slaves in America “a tremendous gift to the world. How they came about is just staggering. When you think of a people, it was a crime to teach them to read or write. They worked from the dark of the morning to the dark of the evening.” Their only instruments were their bodies and sticks and mallets. “And they used those percussive things to develop the rhythms of song and dance. They developed a language for the spirituals which I cannot get over.” Bryan wrote and illustrated six books selecting from the vast body of these spirituals, varying his media from block prints, to water color, to tempera paints depending on how the spirituals made him feel. His most recent book, Let It Shine, uses collage illustrations. With the exception of the block prints which must be carved, Bryan’s media are available to even the youngest children, an aspect that appeals to him and gives him another point of connection with his intended audience.
With each book of spirituals, Bryan challenges himself to convert an oral tradition to the printed word. He finds the solution in poetry. As an elementary school student at P.S. 2 in the Bronx, Bryan’s says, “every day began with two or three students…speaking [a poem] expressively.” Students prepared their poems in advance, practicing their own interpretations until it felt right. Bryan uses poetic devices, such as rhythm, rhyme, alliteration and onomatopoeia, “to open the ear to the sound of the voice in the printed word.”
Bryan lives on one of the Cranberry Islands off the coast of Maine and quips that he remains rooted in the 13th or 14th century. “I hand write everything. I don’t type and I don’t drive.” From June to October he totes his painting supplies all over his island and paints landscapes or seascapes outdoors. Evenings are saved for his children’s books.
“I’m always very moved by [my readers’] responses to my work…How my work has inspired the creative activities and lives of others. That may be true of all writers and illustrators. We do our work and we are trying to give the best that we can, but when we see that others have picked up from what we are doing and found ways of expressing themselves, that makes it especially exciting.”