The Man From Here: An Afternoon with Ashley Bryan

The Man From Here: An Afternoon with Ashley Bryan

I should have brought a warmer jacket. That’s the thought that kept running through my head as I sat on the morning mail boat to Little Cranberry Island to meet Ashley Bryan. It was a classic fall morning in Maine, just before the crisp blue skies of October give way to the more foreboding greys of November, and I had been overly optimistic about my ability to stay warm.

On the boat with me that morning was my colleague Jennifer DePrizio, then the Peggy L. Osher Director of Learning and Interpretation at the PMA and now the Director of Interpretation at the Cleveland Museum of Art, bundled up in a down coat and winter hat, and artist Daniel Minter, who had remembered to wear several layers. I had told myself that it wasn’t very cold back in Portland, but if I’m being honest, I really underdressed because I wanted to make a good impression.

Ashley Bryan isn’t an intimidating man—indeed, quite the opposite—but around the islands and communities that surround Bar Harbor, he has attained an almost mythical status. Everyone knows him, and it would soon become clear to my fellow travelers and I that, in the eyes of residents of Little and Big Cranberry Island, to know Ashley Bryan is to love him.

“Where you headed?” asked a woman on the boat with us that morning.
“Little Cranberry,” I responded.
“Oh, you must be going to see Ashley, then?”
Was it that obvious?

The culture on Maine’s islands is a point of pride for the individuals and families who call them home. Those aware of Maine’s artistic legacy know that these islands have hosted and been called home to some of the most beloved artists in American history: George Bellows, Marsden Hartley, Robert Indiana, Rockwell Kent, and many more. In some ways, Maine islands are as defined by their artists as they are by their natural beauty. So it’s clear to locals that a late-October visit by three (relative) city slickers to Little Cranberry Island could only mean one thing: a visit to Ashley Bryan, the artist of Little Cranberry Island.

Bryan’s impact as an artist in Maine was already well known to me before our trip. My two young daughters were raised with books such as Beautiful Blackbird, and most recently, we’ve been moved by the powerful message of Freedom Over Me: Eleven Slaves, Their Lives and Dreams Brought to Life by Ashley Bryan. Upon hearing of this trip my mother, a retired first-grade teacher in Bath, was all too ready to share the ways Bryan’s work had been explored in her classroom. Beyond my immediate family, it has been a frequent point of discussion with friends, acquaintances, and strangers when they learn the PMA is hosting an exhibition on Bryan. Even beyond his books, people are drawn to his oil paintings, sea-glass windows, and puppets, and revere Bryan as an advocate for children, education, performance, and community.

After disembarking the boat, Minter, a longtime friend of Bryan and regular visitor to Little Cranberry, quickly led us up a few narrow streets of capes, bungalows, or cottages—I maybe spotted four vehicles the entire day—and pointed out a few landmarks. Both were named in honor of the artist: the Ashley Bryan School, which rotates enrollment every two years with the school on Great Cranberry Island; and the Ashley Bryan Storyteller Pavilion, which is the only physical marker of the Ashley Bryan Center, a non-profit organization that provides opportunities for people to come together in the creation and appreciation of visual art, literature, music, and poetry. Minter is on its board of directors.

When we arrived at Bryan’s house, I was struck by its proximity to its neighbors. The general perception of an artist in Maine is of them living in seclusion with lots of space and grand vistas that let the mind and spirit wander. Bryan’s home, by contrast, stood on a parcel not unlike my neighborhood down south, with homes on tidy plots lining the street.

“Hello!” Bryan said, as we stepped inside. “Have a seat and have a grape.”

He beckoned us over to his dining table, just off the kitchen where there were assorted candies, nuts, grapes, and other snacks. I sat down and thought about taking one, but I was overwhelmed by my surroundings. Bryan’s original artwork was all around us, but there was also every kind of ephemera one could imagine. Knick-knacks, figurines, postcards, and photographs—it was like stepping into a museum, except here, everything was out in the open and meant to be touched: the treasured possessions of a life well lived into its ninth decade.

“You see,” Bryan later said, “I’ve been all over the world. Whatever I’ve liked, I always set up around me, and I bring it all. As you walk around, you’ll see. I just really love the way people make things; it doesn’t matter what the material. If it’s a form that I enjoy, I bring it home.”"

Looking around, I truly did see the world looking back at me in Bryan’s possessions. Chinese rod puppets, rare because many were lost during the cultural revolution, adorned bookcases with wooden African figurines, which sat next to old boxes used to transport boneless salted cod from Vinalhaven. Toy plastic soldiers and rubber duckies mingled with Coretta Scott King Book Awards and t-shirt souvenirs from the Million Man March. The combination of delicate antiquities, mass-produced Americana keepsakes, prestigious honors, and much more covered every possible surface of the house. These objects told stories of New York and Glasgow, Asia and Africa, and everywhere in between. Everywhere Bryan’s life has taken him, he has made a place for it in his home in Maine.

“[It’s because] I always try to understand life in terms of how interrelated everything is,” he said. “I’m absorbed in that way of thinking. For example, I say my door is open, and people are surprised—they can just come in! As they come in I say, ‘You make yourselves at home. Look around.’ I just feel it’s special that someone would take up their time to come here. I feel that, and I say, ‘Can I offer anything in return for that?’”

Bryan talked about how that worldview influences his artistic process, specifically citing Freedom Over Me, which tells imagined stories of real slaves based on their bill of sale. “What would they be like if they were not slaves?” Bryan asked. “Do they dream? So, I’d create a life for them. You’d get a whole other world opening to you. I’d give them an age and a job, and I could ask them to talk to me, ‘Tell me about yourself,’ I’d ask, and they would talk to me and tell me where they came from in Africa, what was their life like there, what their families did. I did that so that people could identify in a way, so that they could talk about slavery without being afraid. They could become the people. That was the thing.”

“Has that been a consistent drive throughout your life?” I asked.

“Yes, very much so,” he replied. “Maybe also, [it’s] being a black person that reinforces it…[In WWII] I was in a port battalion of stevedores in a segregated army. I knew nothing of ports and things. I had such admiration for what they offered because they knew how to handle cargo. They had worked on docks and everything. They knew how to run the winches that raise and lower the cargo. Because I have such admiration and respect for what others do, and they could sense that, I had no problem with being different. They all helped me—I’ve been always fortunate in that way—and they never held anything against me. They’d say, ‘You go ahead and draw. You go ahead and draw.’ I drew all the time. I’d hide a sketchpad in my gas mask and I would just draw and draw. And I had been in college when I was drafted, and some of them would have trouble writing, and I would help them with letters to their family. I never had any distance [as a result of my race].”

Bryan at home

“[A similar thing occurred] the first time I came up to the Great Cranberry Island. When I arrived, [black people accounted for] less than 10 percent of the entire state. It’s one of the fewest in the country. And when I arrived on the island with my box of things, somebody takes it from me and hands it to another porter there on the port until it reaches up to a boat. I looked, I said, ‘Oh, it’s a chain of hands, just like the tenement apartment house in which I lived in New York City, where everyone knew everyone, and everyone looked out for each other.’ I said, ‘I’m home.’ I had no problem with adjusting and feeling at home.”

“To me, it’s community. It has nothing to do with what you call it. As long as you have what you call community, that’s always what I’m after, how you create community wherever you go. I think that’s the most important thing—that you feel that you have that outreach to others and that in some way, each one affects the lives of the others, and in very direct ways when needed. That’s the way it was on these islands.”

“One of the famous expressions in Maine is, ‘He’s from away.’ From away. ‘You’re from away.’ [laughs] I never let that go. I’m not from away. I’m from here.”

At that moment, someone knocked on the already open door.

“Cathy!” Bryan exclaimed, “Come on in.”

“You were on the boat with us this morning,” I said, realizing that Cathy was the same woman I’d spoken to on the mail boat.

“Come and meet my family,” Bryan continued to his guest. “You would know them. They’re from the Portland Museum of Art. You know them.”And just like that, Bryan’s island made so much sense: the year-round nature of the island, the proximity to neighbors and friends, the interconnectedness of lives across continents and through time, the open-door visiting, and the family. Bryan’s life is and has always been defined by connection, respect, and storytelling. And the art of Ashley Bryan, more than I could have imagined that morning, is from here.

Pictured above: The Ashley Bryan School

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July 24, 2018
Director of Communications

Graeme is a Maine native who, after ten years living in New York and the west coast, decided to come back and set up shop in Portland. In addition to the PMA, he's held positions at GQ, Rogues Gallery, and Might & Main. He lives in Yarmouth, where he spends most of his free time with his daughters, Ramona and Maude.