Written by Sandy Campbell
Born in 1923, Ashley Bryan grew up in the Bronx during the Depression. His parents emigrated from Antigua in the Caribbean and settled in New York after the First World War. Ashley began making books at the age of six and has never stopped. Trips to the public library, where he sought out folk tales, fairy tales, novels, biographies, and poetry fueled his passion for books. There was, however, no opportunity to identify with Black people through this experience. “At that time I knew very little about books by or
about Black people.”
Drawing helped him keep his humanity, even when drafted out of Cooper Union into a segregated unit during WWII where he served in the D-Day invasion and beyond. After WWII, Ashley studied philosophy at Columbia and has been a two-time Fulbright scholar studying in Germany and Aix-en-Provence.
While at Maine’s Skowhegan School of Art in the summer of 1946, he visited Acadia National Park and saw the Cranberry Isles. This island community became his home and studio for the next 60 years.
As a celebrated teacher, author, and artist, Ashley committed himself to filling the void of Black representation, creating children’s books about the African and African-American experience. He has traveled tirelessly to conferences, festivals, museums, and universities and visited children in schools to share his views. For decades, he travelled to Kenya and South Africa to help build libraries. Throughout both the United States and Kenya, libraries, children’s rooms and literary festivals have been named after him. In 2011 the Islesford School was named after Ashley Bryan and was the first school in Maine to named for an African-American.
Artistically, Ashley’s work is as varied as his stories. His accomplished draughtsmanship is evident whether using pencil or pen to create drawings that range from meticulous renderings of the object to vibrant celebrations of linear movement and energy. His block-print works are often simulated in colorful paintings that impart a similar visual intensity. Ashley also creates puppets from found objects for his storytelling, and he returns to one of the earliest forms of visual narrative in the stained-glass windows he fashions from sea glass and papier-mâché. Ashley Bryan is a Newberry medal honoree for Freedom Over Me. He has received countless Coretta Scott King awards and honors as well as the Coretta Scott King Virginia Hamilton lifetime achievement award. Ashley retired as Professor Emeritus
from Dartmouth College and continued to pursue art as his life’s work. In 2008, The New York Public Library named and honored him as a Library Lion along with Nora Ephron, Salman Rushdie and Edward Albee.
Most recently, he was awarded the Bank Street book of the year for non-fiction as well as the Horn Book award in the same category. On 13 July 2020, Ashley’s 97th birthday, Governor Mills of Maine named the day Ashley Bryan Day throughout the state.
Ashley is the first Black author ever to both write and illustrate books for children. He has written and/or illustrated over 50 books. The Ashley Bryan Center formed in 2013 to preserve his legacy, gifted Ashley’s lifetime works to be archived at the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts at the University of Pennsylvania where a planned exhibition will be opened to the public in 2023 along with several prominent museums in Maine and New York.
Ashley Bryan received The Cooper Union President’s Citation in 1989 and was inducted into The Cooper Union Hall of Fame in 2009. He is the 2021 recipient of the CUAA Augustus Saint-Gauden’s Award.
Ashley makes his home in Islesford Maine.