On a recent rainy day, a mother with two young children entered the Wieland Pavilion on the lower level of the High Museum of Art. One child slept in a stroller, but the other, a girl no more than 4, peered quickly around — and dashed to a far corner. She chose two books from a satchel and skipped back with them to her mother.
“Read to me! Read to me!”
Ashley Bryan would be tickled to have witnessed that small moment.
“As long as children will be encouraged to read, books for children will never end,” says the author and artist, who is a spry 93 years young. “There’s nothing more beautiful than an adult sharing a book with a child.”
The mother promised the girl they’d read later. First, this was their time to see pictures and puppets made by the man who created the art in those storybooks in the corner, including the two the girl had snapped up: “Beautiful Blackbird” (2003) and “Sail Away: Poems by Langston Hughes” (2015), both award winners.
The 70 pieces in the new “Painter and Poet: The Wonderful World of Ashley Bryan” are just a selection of Bryan’s immense output over seven decades. As illustrator, author or both, he has had some 50 children’s books published since 1962.
In January, the artist and scholar of African and African-American folklore received a Newbery Honor for “Freedom Over Me: Eleven Slaves, Their Lives and Dreams Brought to Life by Ashley Bryan.” He has received myriad major prizes in his field, from two career awards from the American Library Association to a number of Coretta Scott King Book Awards.
The Bryan exhibit is a celebration of joy itself, of the pleasure and wonder of life and nature, of the creative process in many forms. It’s a smorgasbord of scenes, from happy to poignant, rendered in everything from tempera on board, to linoleum cut on rice paper. There are ink drawings, block prints, pencil sketches, and wildly colorful collage scenes of such things as birds, or children singing. The artist changes mediums as often and as comfortably as folks change socks.
“I vary my approach, according to what the text is revealing to me,” he says.
He “can never stop creating.” Even when he takes his afternoon breaks, that means going outside with acrylics to paint garden flowers at his longtime home on Little Cranberry Island in Islesford, off the coast of Maine.
The exhibit includes some of Bryan’s sketches of his fellow World War II soldiers; he says he kept a pencil and sketch paper inside his gas mask. There are also several swirling, energetic ink-and-brush drawings done for “The Dancing Granny” (1977); and heart-rending portraits from “Freedom Over Me,” for which Bryan also created poems in which he imagined the lives of former slaves.
Bryan uses his mother’s old sewing and embroidery scissors for his intricate collage work. One double-spread collage takes him about a week, though he’ll be doing many other things that week, such as making something quirky yet beautiful out of found objects. People close to him whisper that he never throws anything away.
You may decide that’s a good thing when you view eight of Bryan’s tall, high-personality puppets inspired by African art. They’re made from such things as shells, bits of cloth and sweaters, zippers, chains, netting, bones and much more.
“There’s a world of value in discarded things,” says the artist, who picks up plenty on the shores of Little Cranberry. The island of about 200 acres has a year-round population of “maybe 50,” guesses the artist. (He later mentions that because he has “no hand for cooking,” neighbors drop off his dinner, though he often doesn’t know who: “It just appears.”)
When Bryan came to town earlier this month, the Alliance Theatre gave him a 12-minute preview of their upcoming family show, “The Dancing Granny,” an exhibit tie-in, complete with youngsters watching who howled with laughter from start to finish.
“Delightful, just wonderful, just wonderful,” was Bryan’s response to the snippet of the “Granny” play adapted by Atlanta’s Jiréh Breon Holder.
Before writing the stage adaptation of the Anansi tale about a trickster spider, Holder visited the artist on Little Cranberry Island. His main takeaway: “I don’t know that there’s a more generous person on this entire planet. His generosity enters into all that he does.”
“Of any artist I’ve ever met, I think Ashley is the most joyful,” says Christopher Moses, the director of education and associate artistic director at the Alliance. “I’m constantly struck by how clearly he is inspired by the curiosity of children. That seems to be the genesis of everything he does.”
The artist even credits his longevity to just that when asked what has kept him so productive at 93.
“Never lose the excitement of the child at the morning. Every day is a possibility of adventure, of creating, or learning, or discovery. If you wake up with that spirit of adventure, if you can manage to never lose it, then you have no measure of years.”
“Painter and Poet: The Wonderful World of Ashley Bryan” marks the third consecutive year that the High has partnered with the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Mass., to produce an exhibit showcasing a children’s book artist. (The exhibit is also in partnership with the Ashley Bryan Center in Islesford, Maine.) Artwork by Mo Willems (“Don’t Let The Pigeon Drive the Bus,” “Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale”) was showcased in 2015. “I See a Story: The Art of Eric Carle,” featuring art from 16 books from “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” creator, was a huge hit last year.
Collectively, these exclusive shows are “all about hooking children while they’re young so they become lifelong lovers of the arts,” says Virginia Shearer, director of education at the High and a co-curator of the Bryan exhibit.