After nearly 19 months of work, through campus shut-downs and work-from-home orders due to the pandemic, it is my distinct pleasure to have completed processing the Ashley Bryan papers, a collection that is near and dear to my heart as a person and archivist. My awareness of this collection extends all the way back to December 5, 2019, the day of my final interview for my current position as an archivist at the Kislak Center, when Ashley Bryan himself visited campus with family and long-time friends and colleagues for an evening celebration of the arrival of the Ashley Bryan papers in the Kislak Center and the publication of Bryan’s World War II memoir, Infinite Hope. Among those attending were H. Nichols Clark (Founding Executive Director of the Ashley Bryan Center; former chief curator and founding director of the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art), along with members of the Ashley Bryan Center Board of Directors: George Sandy Campbell, Verna Rae Denny, Bari Haskins-Jackson, Daniel and Cynthia Lief, and Caitlyn Dlouhy (Vice President & Editorial Director of Caitlyn Dlouhy Books, Atheneum Books for Young Readers). My eventual start-date for my position was March 16, 2020, the very same day that University of Pennsylvania faculty, staff, students—and most of the rest of the world, for that matter—began to work from home for about six months. Finally, in September 2020, I arrived for the first time in the office, excited to begin processing the wonderful collection.
Gifted in 2019 by Ashley Bryan and the Ashley Bryan Center, Senior Curator, Lynne Farrington, and fellow Kislak Center curators John Pollack and David McKnight made trips Bryan’s home in Islesford, Maine, the harbor town on Little Cranberry Island, to select and prepare materials for shipment. By the time I first started working with the collection, those materials had been reunited with other materials that the Ashley Bryan Center had been storing at a fine arts facility in Boston and then shipped to Penn Libraries in October 2019. They comprised the entirety of the material gift at the time, which would eventually clock in at just under 85 linear feet. Other materials were promised and will arrive as a separate gift over the next couple of years. The very early stages of handling these materials were unforgettable: box after box, full of decades worth of drawings, paintings, watercolors, prints, collages, and calligraphy; correspondence going back 70 years with an old college friend; bins full of thank you cards and artwork from children who he visited at one time or another. The sheer breadth and variety of his artwork, the stylistic shifts that he followed over the years, somehow all retain his childlike enchantment with his subjects and materials, while simultaneously demonstrating gradual refinements as an artistic technician to the point of mastery. The effortlessness of his output is simply stunning, from the very first glimpses of his artistic talents as a kindergartner in the late-1920s, all the way up to the most recent examples of his work in the collection, from 2019.
Ashley Bryan was born on July 13, 1923 in Harlem, New York, the second of six children of Antigua immigrants and childhood sweethearts, Ernest Bryan and Olive (Carty) Bryan. Bryan later recalled that he “cannot remember a time when I have not been drawing and painting.” His artistic talent was recognized by his father, a printer by trade, who provided him with a steady supply of paper left over from printing orders. Bryan and his siblings were raised in an apartment in the Bronx, New York, and their mother, a seamstress by trade, decorated the naturally lit spaces in their home with flowers and plants, and “where there was no light she made colorful crepe paper flowers to brighten the shadowed areas.” Bryan’s father was an avid bird enthusiast, once housing “over 100 birds, canaries, finches, warblers, [and] parakeets,” whose cages lined the living room (Autobiography drafts, undated, Box: 16, Folder: 20).
Bryan and his siblings attended P.S. 2, where they shared the classroom with Irish, Italian, German, Polish, Jewish, and fellow Black students. It was here, during his kindergarten year, that he managed to author, illustrate, publish, and distribute his first work, greeted with fanfare by his family upon returning home with his newly created alphabet book. It was also during this time that Bryan and his fellow students were introduced to poetry and learned to recite poetry daily, in the front of the class. Between this early school education in the arts and the vibrancy of his home environment and family support, Bryan was equipped with a potent and unrelenting passion for creation, leading him to attend numerous Works Progress Administration (WPA) art and music classes, slowly but surely developing an impressive portfolio over the years in hopes of attending a leading art school after graduating from high school.
Things, however, did not turn out quite as he had initially hoped. He later recalled being told by an admissions officer from one institution to which he applied that his was “the best portfolio that he had seen [but] that it would be a waste to give a scholarship to a ‘colored’ person” (Autobiography drafts, undated, Box: 16, Folder: 20). Despite this setback, in 1940, after a taking a blind entrance exam as part of his application to the Cooper Union School of Art and Engineering, Bryan was accepted with a full scholarship as the only Black student in his class. He pursued painting as his primary discipline, along with sculpture, calligraphy, design, and book illustration.
In March 1943, Bryan was inducted into the United States Army to serve during World War II. Assigned to the segregated 207th Port Company, 502nd Port Battalion as a stevedore, he was forced to forgo his education for the foreseeable future. After a period of training near Boston, Massachusetts, he and his company sailed across the Atlantic Ocean to Scotland, before landing on Normandy Beach in France three days after D-Day, and was eventually stationed in Le Havre.
Hiding his arts supplies in his gas mask, Bryan drew many scenes of his time in the military. Earning a reputation as a skilled artist, his military comrades encouraged and facilitated two art exhibitions exclusively featuring his artwork in ad hoc exhibition spaces including a lounge and a mess hall.
Upon his honorable discharge from the military in January 1946, Bryan returned to New York City to complete his studies at Cooper Union, graduating with a Bachelor of Fine Arts, before going on to Columbia University to earn a Bachelor of Science in philosophy. Immediately upon graduating in 1950, Bryan left again France, this time using the GI Bill to pursue further education in the arts at the Universite d’aix-Marseille in Aix-en-Provence. While there he traveled extensively and also found time to attend the festival commemorating the 200th anniversary of Johann Sebastian Bach’s death in the small Catalan town of Prades, organized and led by legendary cellist, Pablo Casals.
Bryan returned home to New York City in 1953 and continued to develop his teaching skills at a variety of institutions before returning to Europe in 1956 on a Fulbright Scholarship to Germany to study at the University of Freiburg-im-Breisgau. While there, he spent a considerable amount of time drawing the marketplace and people of Freiburg, in addition to learning German so he could read the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke in the original. Ashley wanted to experience “the rhythms of the German language” as expressed by Rilke, having already memorized the English translations of many Rainer Maria Rilke poems from the books he brought with him.
In 1959, Bryan returned once again to the United States and to teaching art, renting a studio near his parents in the Bronx. Some years later Jean Karl, a legendary editor of children’s books at Atheneum, visited Ashley in his studio, forging what would be the beginning of a long and fruitful personal and professional relationship. Karl, impressed by the variety of styles he used to illustrate text, sent Bryan a contract to begin working for Atheneum. Dedicating himself to bringing African folktales, African-American spirituals, and poetry to life, Bryan used the lyricism of the text to guide the artistic direction and style he used for his children’s books, bringing “diversity to an often white-dominated genre by introducing generations of young readers to Black characters and African folk tales” (Risen). Bryan illustrated, authored and/or translated more than 70 books for children, Karl being his primary collaborator up until her death in 1999, after which Caitlyn Dlouhy took over this role.
In addition to his copious children’s book contributions, Bryan made a considerable effort to travel and visit with schoolchildren, demonstrating the art of storytelling, often taking the opportunity to play the recorder, recite poetry, and read his own books to eager young listeners. This, of course, was a regular practice of his despite also holding a variety of teaching positions at various institutions, eventually landing a faculty position at Dartmouth College in 1974. Here, he taught paintings, drawing, and design to equally eager, but college-aged, students.
After retiring from Dartmouth, Bryan moved to his summer home on Little Cranberry Island, Maine, which he had renovated to allow him to live there year-round. This chosen home on Little Cranberry Island became a common place for Bryan’s friends and family to visit, for him to entertain and paint with his guests no matter their age, and to treat them to the local Masquerade and Maypole events during the warmer months. It was also the harvesting ground for his puppet creations made from objects he found during his daily walks along the seashore, such as sea-glass and driftwood.
Ashley Bryan is the rare example of a human being so enamored with life, so fascinated with its joys and sorrows. He married these emotions with pure artistic craft and technique, leading him to publish books and create artwork well into his 90s—the most recent of which was published in his 96th year.
It has been the pleasure of a lifetime being able to spend the last year-and-a-half or so with each and every piece of correspondence, artwork, and publicity, the endless boxes of greeting cards from friends and thank you notes and artwork from school children, and I will certainly miss the moments I shared with his cherished collection for the rest of my life. But what is an even greater pleasure is knowing that now anyone interested in spending their time with the materials can now do so in the Kislak Center reading room; the Ashley Bryan’s papers are here for you to explore to your heart’s content!
For more information about Ashley Bryan, his archive at the Kislak Center, and websites related to his life and work, including videos and interviews, please visit this wonderful website.
Stay tuned for updates regarding the forthcoming exhibition, tentatively titled The Beautiful Blackbird, based on materials from the Ashley Bryan papers, curated by Kislak Senior Curator Lynne Farrington which will be on display February to May 2023.
Ashley Bryan papers, 1823-2019 (bulk: 1928-2019), Ms. Coll. 1439, Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts, University of Pennsylvania. http://dla.library.upenn.edu/dla/pacscl/detail.html?id=PACSCL_UPENN_RBML_MsColl1439
Risen, Clay. “Ashley Bryan, Who Brought Diversity to Children’s Books, Dies at 98.” The New York Times. February 9, 2022. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/09/books/ashley-bryan-dead.html.