Profile of 2009 Wilder Award winner Ashley Bryan

By Caitlyn Dlouhy

In a recent interview, Ashley Bryan was asked to name a favorite time in his life. Without a pause, he smiled his dazzling smile and exclaimed, “Right now!” At that particular Right Now, Ashley was sitting on a hard plastic chair in a closet-sized studio, portrait lights surely hurting his eyes. Right now? But yes, nothing could be truer. For Ashley, Right Now holds more than just the moment; it’s also everything that’s happened beforehand. And for Ashley, every moment holds importance, possibility: something to be learned, to be shared, to be discovered.

Ashley seeks and finds beauty in everything he encounters. His earliest memories are of the peeps and trills of the hundred or so birds—finches, canaries, warblers; their wings flashing color—that his father kept in their Bronx apartment; of watching his mother fold crepe paper into flowers to brighten the shadowy corners of that apartment; of roaming the streets with his sister Ernestine, looking for castaway bits, the best finds from the upholstery stores, from which they could piece together vests and kites that were visual feasts of texture and hue; of the rhythms of his Antiguan grandmother telling tales, telling tales, telling tales, the rhythms saying just as much as the words. These earliest memories were the start of a palette that is particular to Ashley. While most artists have a penchant for particular tones and hues, Ashley’s palette goes far beyond that. His comprises rhythm and color and words. Everything he touches is imbued with these elements.

Have you heard Ashley recite a favorite poem or read from one of his picture books? If so, you know that it’s then impossible to read the same piece yourself without bringing his flavor to it—just try! For those who haven’t yet had the pleasure, let me explain. You see, Ashley doesn’t really read. He becomes. There is a book in his hand, but he never glances at it. He might turn the page, share the illustrations. But the words are already inside him. His voice picks out the rhythm, fills you with that rhythm, fills you with voice. Scats. Riffs. Langston Hughes. Eloise Greenfield. Rainer Maria Rilke. To hear Ashley quote Rilke in German is to listen to a storm of beauty. To watch him perform Hughes’s “My People” is to understand the expression “bring the house down.”

Ashley’s quest to find the natural rhythms—the music—in words is what first led him to picture books. He had discovered a hole in children’s literature. There were no introductory books of African American spirituals. There were no stories from the African oral tradition. The translations he found were academic. Dust in the throat. Stories without a voice. The challenge was immediate; he wanted to turn these dried-out stories back into lively, spirited tales. He couldn’t duplicate the oral traditions of Africa, so he set out on a mission to create something for a new audience: beautiful books to be read and shared aloud.

So Ashley listened to storytellers, he read more poetry, he absorbed the cadences, and he gave them voice, capturing—and paying homage to—the spirit of the oral tradition. Encouraged by the late Atheneum editor Jean Karl (who, after visiting Ashley in his Bronx studio, went back to her office and promptly mailed him a book contract), Ashley set to work on the visuals. The art had to enhance the story; it had to help guide the reader to the voice, to the rhythm. Block prints, solid yet elegant, seemingly opaque yet somehow airy, capturing African motif and sensibility, were exactly right for his first book, The Ox of the Wonderful Horns and Other African Folktales.

There was nothing like it in children’s literature. Ashley had bridged time and space, bringing past and present together to create a new voice, born of an ancient one.

Have you visited Ashley’s island home in Maine? There’s only one way to get there: mail boat. And what you should know is that to get from boat to island you must jump from boat to dock. That bridge of air is not wide, but it’s enough to let you know that you are somewhere else. Ashley will greet you with his wagon-wheeled cart and tote your luggage to his house. But before going in, you go out. Out to his garden. A riot of color, irises with impossibly huge heads, roses so heavy they droop, lupines sturdy enough to resist the ocean gales. An Impressionist’s paradise. A random assortment of vegetables always provides a salad. But the true nourishment is the color. It changes with the weather’s mood, and Ashley is fed by it, in astonishing ways.

He has set color in tall, slender panels made up entirely of sea glass—the grounds of pottery and cups and bottles, some from whaling wrecks—that he’s plucked from among stones on the beach. And from what he’s gathered, Ashley has built stained glass panels portraying the life of Jesus, illuminated by sun and sea. (Thinking of books of Ashley’s such as All Night, All Day: A Child’s First Book of African-American Spirituals or The Night Has Ears: African Proverbs, one wonders which came first: his panels or his books?)

He creates puppets, dozens and dozens of them, pieced together with bone, shell, frayed lobster netting. Bits cast off by the sea, ignored by the gulls, found by Ashley (inspired by African tribal art), now used...for storytelling.

And naturally, the color finds its way onto massive, hand-stretched canvases...And somehow there’s always a new one, despite the visitors.

Oh, the visitors!

There are his island neighbors who are the first to see any work he does.

There are the yellow-rain-jacketed children who demand a poem or a tune from Ashley’s pear wood recorder.

And in come the off-islanders, hoping to meet him, hoping to see the puppets, the windows, the garden.

When someone comes to the door, Ashley will stop whatever he is doing, even his art. Because nothing is more important than the person he is with Right Now, and everything he creates is to share with whoever is with him.

Ashley also makes the best toasted cheese sandwich on the eastern seaboard. You might get one. And if asked, Ashley might even show you his loft, where the light is soft, where those outside flowers are now within, having been visually picked and transformed into oil paintings on those hand-stretched canvases. And so, you’re back in the garden, that glorious garden, yet again. Depending on what Ashley’s working on, you might also see sketches from the beaches of Normandy, where he landed with the 270 Port Company during World War II, his charcoals and sketch pad tucked away in his gas mask. Or you may catch a glimpse of drawings of his nieces and nephews, who were his first models. Or a letter from Pablo Casals, in thanks for a series of drawings Ashley made after listening to the great cellist, breaking a self-imposed silence in protest of the Franco regime, play for the first time in years.

On a shelf are two pairs of silver scissors, one larger than the other: his mother’s embroidery scissors. From these and construction paper, Ashley shaped the little bitty baby and the hands from which the sun and the stars, the wind and the rain, spiral in Let It Shine. They snipped forth that blackbird who shares his dark markings to give the other birds a stronger sense of themselves in Beautiful Blackbird.

It’s not happenstance that Ashley has chosen cut paper as his medium of choice of late. His cut-paper work has been compared to that of Matisse’s. Within empty sheets of paper, Ashley finds tigers and igloos and crowns and blackbirds. Each shape comes from a part of something larger, and all of the shapes together in an illustration create something larger still. Ashley rarely needs to sketch before he cuts. His hands know the shapes he wants, the layering he needs. He’s a master at crisp juxtapositions of shades that bring forth richness that couldn’t be there without the layering, the melding, the building, the sharing.

Ashley Bryan would consider himself, I think, a plain piece of paper. Ashley as artist, as storyteller, as one who gathers sound and shape and narrative, cuts from that paper—that paper that is himself, his own story—to share with the world, and especially the world of children. This made for a curious conundrum as we started working on his autobiography, Ashley Bryan: Words to My Life’s Song. Ashley’s life has been spent seeing the usefulness in everything, linking past with present, using art to break cultural (and color) barriers, and . . . finding bridges to beauty. And yet when he started sending me snippets of text for the autobiography, they were, oddly, missing his stories. As I asked him about certain moments I thought might be included in his book, he wasn’t convinced that anyone would be interested. I thought it ironic, because if it were someone else’s story, he’d encourage that person most vehemently to share that story with others—as story, as art, as pieces of sea glass in tall, slender panels. And yet this is so wonderfully Ashley: he builds his art from castoff objects and stories, forgotten finds that he immediately sees as worthy of attention and shepherding, and yet when others are pulled toward his work or see the worth in things that he has created, he is delighted but also surprised.

Ashley’s passion for storytelling is a passion for sharing and giving as much of himself as he can, which will, in turn, become part of something bigger—everything building on what has come before to make Right Now the Best Time. And this must be true, because for us any time spent with Ashley is the Best Time.

Ashley Bryan is the winner of the 2009 Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal. Caitlyn Dlouhy is editorial director at Atheneum Books for Young Readers. Article is from the July/August 2009 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.
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