“Let’s Celebrate Ashley Bryan!” Showcases Bates Treasures New and Old


Bates College Museum of Art

Ashley Bryan, [Untitled Collage from Beautiful Blackbird], n.d., paper collage, 20 1/2 x 28 in. (framed), Bates College Museum of Art, gift of Henry Isaacs and Donna Bartnoff Isaacs, 2019.2.4

How many picture books did you read growing up that placed people of color at the center? I don’t remember many personally, but Bates runs the Diverse Book Finder so the next generation can have a more inclusive literary experience. You can also head over to the Bates Museum of Art to enjoy its new exhibition, “Let’s Celebrate Ashley Bryan!”

Ashley Bryan is a celebrated children’s book writer and illustrator. (Creative Commons)

Ashley Bryan is a 97-year-old African-American illustrator and writer. Since the late 1980s, Bryan has lived full time on Maine’s Little Cranberry Island, making him something of a statewide treasure. His bibliography is extensive and has won him eight Coretta Scott King Awards, an award from the American Library Association (ALA) given to African-American picture book authors and illustrators for authentically representing the Black experience. 

Last year, two of his neighbors, Henry Isaacs and Donna Bartnoff, donated over 50 of Bryan’s pieces to the Bates Museum of Art, which makes up the majority of the exhibition.  As one would expect for a children’s book author, the first floor of the museum is full of life and color. Bryan’s distinctive bird drawings line the floor six feet apart to help aid in social distancing. One wall is dedicated to a collection of his books, but sadly, only one can be read. The book is set apart at a special station, with hand sanitizer at the ready so you can flip through it and live inside this vivid, exuberant world of Bryan’s making.

A video of Bryan reading one of his books, “Beautiful Blackbird,” loops on a television in the corner, and there, you can see that the bright colors perfectly capture Bryan himself. The recording from 2014 shows him energetically leading kids and families through a reading of his book, turning it into a call and response; it was a rhythmic event that almost feels more like a poetry slam than a reading of a picture book. It is no wonder that this exhibit is so full of life when Bryan himself is.

In addition to his books, prints and paintings are also included in the exhibition. I personally was drawn to his black and white linocut prints, all displaying Biblical scenes. While not quite as bright as some of his other work, they provide a nice contrast to the exhibition. Sure, Bryan may be passionate and bright and every other synonym you can find in the thesaurus, but even those types of people can slow down to become more introverted and introspective. The linocuts feel like that.

Ashley Bryan, Iris #1, n.d., acrylic on canvas, 48 1/2 x 36 3/4 in., Bates College Museum of Art, gift of Henry Isaacs and Donna Bartnoff Isaacs, 2020.2.9 (Bates College Museum of Art)

Downstairs, in an exhibition entitled “Evolve, pieces from the permanent Bates collection are displayed. The pieces vary across mediums, colors, size, artist, and place of origin, but each tells a story of how this permanent collection has, well, evolved over the years.

One, “Bint Al Rijal” by Ghada Al Rabea, is a collage made out of old candy wrappers. The piece depicts what appears to be a Muslim woman standing against the ocean, an apple dangling in front of her face and obscuring all but a silver of her eyes. It reminded me of the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, a tale of temptation and mystery told through sugar and Westernization.

Going deeper into the exhibition brings you face to face with Shaman forehead masks from Dao, Vietnam; nature photographs; sculptures made out of jade, clay, or wood; and two centaur paintings, centuries and cultures apart but united as black and white prints. I do not want to spoil too many of the mysteries, especially since the exhibit will change subtly throughout the year to show off more pieces from the collection. While less exuberant than upstairs, it still provides many a chance to slip into a childlike state, imagining stories for each piece.

If you have time before you head home for the semester for a calming walk through the Bates Museum of Art, located inside the Olin Arts Center, you won’t regret it. If not, a 360º virtual experience is available here of “Let’s Celebrate Ashley Bryan!” that you can enjoy from home. Both exhibits will remain open until March 20, 2021.