We've Lost a Giant
- February 08, 2022
We've Lost a Giant
By Argy Nestor of Argy's Point of View Blog
Sadly, we lost a giant in the arts on Friday, February 4. Ashley Bryan was 98 years old and lived everyday joyfully. His face in the photo is how I will remember this amazing artist, advocate, storyteller, poet, and humanitarian.
Just a couple of weeks ago I read an interesting story in the Maine Sunday Telegram about a family in Virginia who purchased a home where their great grandparents lived as slaves on a plantation. I thought of Ashley Bryan and his book, Freedom Over Me. I cut the article out of the paper and sent it to him. As Ashley has done in so many books it is a beautiful collection of words and pictures. On the mainland near Ashley’s home on Little Cranberry Island he heard there was to be an auction that included paperwork from a plantation where slaves were held. Interestingly enough, the paperwork was from an auction that was selling 11 slaves. The paperwork described only the necessary items to buy and sell slaves; name, age, height, price, and little else. Ashley imagined much more about these individuals and gave them lives; describing their skills, their hopes and dreams, in poetry and images. Each are alive for the reader on the pages of the book.
Freedom Over Me is one of over 50 books that Ashley has written and illustrated. For years his children’s books have been steady and gently forceful educating on issues of color and racial diversity. He has used song, poetry, spirituals, folktales and much more to share Black culture. He received awards and recognition for many of his books including including two Coretta Scott King awards and the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award. He found joy in telling his stories with people of all ages through singing, tapping and moving. Ashley’s presentations started with a Langston Hughes poem My People. The youtube video will help you understand why Ashley shared this poem and you’ll hear him reciting.
My Peopleby Langston Hughes
The night is beautiful,
So the faces of my people.
The stars are beautiful,
So the eyes of my people.
Beautiful, also, is the sun.
Beautiful, also, are the souls of my people.
In 2013 the Ashley Bryan Center was created to to “preserve, celebrate and share broadly artist Ashley Bryan’s work and his joy of discovery, invention, learning and community. The Ashley Bryan Center will promote opportunities for people to come together in the creation and appreciation of visual art, literature, music, and the oral and written traditions of poetry. The Center is fiercely committed to fostering cultural understanding and personal pride through scholarship, exhibitions and opportunities in the Arts.” The center has been doing impactful work since its inception. One component is the distribution of Ashley’s book Beautiful Blackbird. Each year copies are given to schools, libraries, and organizations serving underserved children. To date, over 20,000 books have been distributed in Maine, New York City, Atlanta, and Philadelphia.
I was fortunate in August of 2018 to travel with Central Elementary music teacher Kate Smith to Islesford to meet and visit with Ashley in his home. We were touched by his energy, joy and childlike view of the world. What a gift! We visited the Storytelling Pavilion where we viewed his amazing puppets and stained glass windows. Yesterday I shared the sad news of Ashley’s passing with friend and colleague, Catherine Ring. We agreed that there are some people that should live forever, they enrich every life they touch and make the world a better place. Ashley was one of those people, and fortunately as he reminds us in the video (linked above), that what we create will last. The art he created during his 98 years on this earth will last and there’s no doubt in my mind that it will continue to impact people of all ages in a positive and thoughtful way. At some level his message lives on in each of us touched by Ashley and his work (and play) so he’s not really gone.
In 2020, the Maine Arts Commission exhibited both an in-person and virtual gallery of Ashley Bryan's works in the Maine State Capitol Complex. We also produced a video of a 2019 visit with Ashley Bryan at his house on Little Cranberry Island. Video made by Ryan Leighton & Cody Mitchell.
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