Bates College Museum of Art exhibits ‘Let’s Celebrate Ashley Bryan!’

Untitled collage from Beautiful Blackbird.

Bates College Museum of Art presents “Let’s Celebrate Ashley Bryan!,” which runs Oct. 21 to March 20.

Although only open to visitors with valid Bates IDs due to the pandemic, the museum remains committed to serving the public through a variety of remotely accessible educational programs.

The virtual exhibition can be viewed at https://my.matterport.com/show/?m=VtgNMNnJQrx.

African-American artist Ashley Bryan is one of Maine’s cultural treasures. A noted painter, printmaker, illustrator, author, puppet maker and storyteller, Bryan, who turned 97 on July 13, came to Maine as a member of the first class to attend Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in 1946. He began to summer regularly in the Cranberry Isles, a group of islands off Mount Desert Island, in the late 1940s, and has lived on Little Cranberry Island year-round since the late 1980s. In 2019, Henry Isaacs and Donna Bartnoff Isaacs, longtime friends and neighbors of Bryan’s on Little Cranberry Island, donated over 50 works of art including paintings, drawings, and prints, and numerous other items including copies of his books. The core of this exhibition is drawn from this generous gift.

Bryan’s passion for storytelling was fueled by trips to the public library as a child, where he read folktales, novels, biographies and poetry. However, there were few opportunities to identify with African Americans in the books he found. This is a problem he has been determined to address in his books ever since. Bryan has written and illustrated more than 50 books, many inspired by African folktales and Black American spirituals. These include award winning titles such as “Infinite Hope: A Black Artist’s Journey from World War II to Peace” (2020); “I Am Loved” (2018), “Freedom Over Me: Eleven Slaves, Their Lives and Dreams Brought to Life” (2016) and many more.

Illustrations from selected books and a reading area are part of the exhibition.

Like his book illustrations, Bryan’s paintings are varied in subject. Works from earlier in his career are often expressionistic and representational painted in a naturalistic palette, with subjects including family, friends, musicians, landscapes and gardens, and images painted while abroad. Later, paintings share the brilliantly colorful palette of many of his book illustrations and include lush and vivid gardens and scenic images from Little Cranberry Isle.

In the artist’s words, “I can’t remember a time when I have not been drawing and painting. In kindergarten, when I learned the alphabet and then drew the pictures for each letter, it was a wonderful experience because the teacher said I had published a book when I reached the end and sewed it together. Because of the encouragement I received as a child, in school and at home, I continued doing those books. I don’t know how much those experiences were actually behind what I’m doing now in a direct sense, but it was the spirit in which it was opened to me, that in which I really believed.”

Learn more about the exhibit and additional offerings at https://www.bates.edu/museum/ashley-bryan.

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