By Joanne C. Hillhouse
Meeting award winning artist and children’s author Ashley Bryan was a trip. Not literally. His directions to his hilltop view of the waterfront at Olive Mt. in Donovan’s (Antigua) were quite clear. Nor was it a literary disciple’s delight at meeting one whose celebrity in the world of children’s writing preceded him, and whose connection to Antigua, though little known, was solid and true.
No, it was the man himself; a lively man who didn’t seem a day past middle age even as he spoke of sketching the scenes around him during his tour of duty on the battlefront of the Second World War. Though several sources put his birth year at 1923, the question still nagged, just how old was he? This question was put to him another way; how do you stay so young? His answer: “I think it’s just the excitement of each day.”
In a promotional video found online, Bryan declares, “I try to be like a child in what I do.” Truer words were never said. Kids, for the most part, throw themselves into life, embracing it with an enthusiasm that life has not yet taught them to mistrust. Bryan is not a child. The greys brought on by experience –and the startling and funky white of his ‘fro – are there, certainly. But they add texture to the images and words that flow from him, they do not overwhelm them. At least, that was this writer’s sense of him after that single meeting. But then, he seems to have that effect on people. Lonnae O’Neal Parker wrote, in a 1998 article found at the Washington Post website, “…Bryan doesn’t talk, he spins stories. And recites poems. He doesn’t just recite them, he performs with deep rumbles, grand trills and a ba-doom-boom, scatman’s rhythm.”
Bryan’s grizzled youthfulness makes one think, well, I could welcome old age, if it would be so welcoming.
Speaking of welcome, when cultural activist Conrad Luke met Bryan during the latest of his annual visits to the island, he decided that it was time for Antigua to do just that for this grandson of the soil. Luke took on the role of press officer, making bookings and ferrying Bryan to media house after media house.
So, Antigua, meet Ashley Bryan.
He’s one of six children born to Ernest and Olive Bryan, who migrated to the U.S. sometime after Ernest’s time in North Africa during the First World War. His dad was from Cedar Grove, his mom from Gray’s Farm; the family made their life in Bronx, New York. Dad was a printer (and musician) and mom “made the house beautiful”. In his mind, they were artists. Certainly, they fostered an appreciation for art in their children. While they didn’t have the means to pay for music lessons and trips to the museum, coming of age in the 1930s, the era of the well known Great Depression, Bryan benefited from the Works Programme Administration, which funded, among other things, arts programmes.
It fostered in Bryan an endearing appreciation for art. “Art is a part of being a whole being,” he said. “If you cut out the art, you don’t have a whole human.” Moreover, he added that “the aesthetic is in everybody”, that just as you need people to create art, you need people to appreciate it.
Scour the pages for his books on Amazon – from West Indian folk tale The Cat’s Purr to Let it shine: three favourite spirituals to his latest, the autobiography Words to My Life’s Song released January 2009, and the appreciation for his work is largely evident. Part of what feeds Bryan’s work, meanwhile, is his own appreciation for the art of others. In a single conversation, he moves from the folk tales of Africa to the spirituals born on the plantation to the poetry of the likes of Paul Laurence Dunbar and Langston Hughes to the music of (Antiguan soca diva) Claudette Peters – overheard as he rode the bus to the beach where he floats on his back taking in the natural art all around. These influences feed naturally into his work, giving it a certain agelessness, or so he sees it, describing his books not as children’s books per se but as books for all ages. “Good stories are for everybody,” Bryan said.
How does an artist become a writer?
Well, for Bryan, it began in childhood, as shown, and continued at the Cooper Union School of Art and Engineering, which is where he began illustrating African tales. Tuition was free, but getting in wasn’t easy; he even remembers being told that though he had the best portfolio, it would be a waste to give a scholarship to a “coloured” person. He did get in though, only to be drafted into WWII in his third year. His sketchpad was a constant companion; he drew, he said, “everything about the life” and when he returned home in 1946, he continued his studies. Of war, he said, “many people can’t readjust; those who do have some way (of coping), my way was to start over again, to find answers. I thought if I studied philosophy, I would get some insight into how the mind works.” The art continued to tug at him, though. He remembers summers on the Cranberry Isles, off Maine, where he now resides full time; and remembers using his GI Bill to go to France to paint.
The conundrum, one common to artists, was how to live by this art. For Bryan, teaching at the university level has been one answer; all through the years putting food on the table, until leaving Dartmouth as professor emeritus. In fact, he was into his 40s by the time he started doing books. He referenced Nancy Larrick and her groundbreaking article ‘The All White World of Children’s Books’ which helped jump start the publishing of books for that demographic, and initiatives like the Coretta Scott King Award instituted to encourage and reward outstanding African American children’s literature and illustrations. Bryan has won that award a few times – for books like All Night, All Day: A Child’s First Book of African-American Spirituals, Ashley Bryan’s ABC of African American Poetry, Beat the Story Drum, Pum-Pum, Beautiful Blackbird, Lion and the Ostrich Chicks and other African Folk Poems, and What a Morning! The Christmas Story in Black Spirituals.
This chapter of his life began when editor Jean Karl, after visiting his studio in the Bronx, sent him a contract to begin work as an illustrator with Atheneum Publishers. It was Karl who urged him to write. Bryan turned to the great African American poets for inspiration; and in fact, to this day, when he does readings, he normally begins with selections from these poets before plunging into his own work – the thread of connection being made clear to his listeners. In fact, connections to the things that inspire – visual and literal – are there throughout Bryan’s work. Take Antigua, for instance, which he visited for the first time in his 20s; while his artistic style varies with subject, he notes one feature: “how very colourful my work is, that’s because of that inspiration (Antigua); your roots are always with you.”
Originally published in the Daily Observer, Antigua, 28th May 2009 under the headline ‘Ashley Bryan, Welcome Home’. My Blogger on Books section also contains mini-reviews of two Bryan books: The Dancing Granny and Beautiful Blackbird. See the Children’s lit section for more of Bryan’s books.