Ashley Bryan’s joyful presence

BAR HARBOR — Ashley Bryan’s creative output over the course of his 80-year career has been nothing short of awe inspiring. On top of a more-than-respectable catalog of expressive paintings, Bryan has written and illustrated numerous children’s books, sculpted whimsical puppets, crafted insightful poems and inspired generations of children and adults to embrace their creative spirits.

Bryan’s is a life fully lived, and it is hard to imagine a better way of taking in the breadth, depth and complexity of such a life than “A Visit with Ashley Bryan,” a multi-media exhibit on display at College of the Atlantic’s Blum Gallery through February.

The show, developed by a number of COA alumni and faculty, is a joy to behold on many levels. It is at once an entertaining diversion, a visual feast and a spiritual inspiration. “Visit” takes the viewer into Bryan’s Islesford studio, offers a window into the artist’s interior life and creative process, and it provides detailed historical context for his voluminous output. Bryan’s collections, work and life glow with light and spirit, and with its careful selection of materials and thoughtful design, this small retrospective captures Bryan’s bright spirit grandly, serving as the perfect antidote to the long nights and cold days of midwinter.

Bryan is an internationally-known artist and humanitarian who first visited the Acadia area shortly after leaving the armed services after World War II. Since 1988, he has lived year-round on Islesford. His colorful home and studio are frequently full of visitors, from neighbors to artists to school groups. His impact on the community and everyone who knows him has been larger than life, and perhaps is best illustrated by the recent naming of the island middle and elementary school after him.

Bryan’s spirit is as expressive and expansive as the artwork he creates, and it comes alive in “Visit” partly through the many quotes scattered throughout the exhibit.

When we read Bryan saying, “The earth, the sky, the sea and community. That’s why I’m here,” we get a sense of the man’s deep love for nature and place. When he says, “The desire to create is what identifies us as human beings,” we can feel the importance of the artistic practice for Bryan. Truly, his humanness and his artwork are of-a-piece.

Perhaps one quote that goes furthest to explain the nature of Bryan’s work comes from a video interview that loops throughout the show. “Whether I’m working with seaglass or a painting or a book,” Bryan says, “It’s all the same challenge: How can I live that moment?”

It’s a telling quote because this living in the moment is exactly what the viewer begins to sense of Bryan just a few minutes into standing in the beautiful Blum Gallery, surrounded by his work. Whether colorful window art made from seaglass, puppets from objects found while beachcombing, or sketches made in the army over 50 years ago, the sense of Bryan seeking to be in that unique moment is palpable and contagious.

So much of Bryan’s work in this place that he has chosen to call home has been focused on bringing people into the joyful moment. Whether it is leading a crowd in a back-and-forth reading of Langston Hughes, entertaining school children with his handcrafted puppets or simply spending time with his neighbors, Bryan’s legacy is one of indomitable spirit and joyful presence. “A Visit with Ashley Bryan” honors this legacy and transmits about as much of it as is possible without bringing the man himself to the gallery to meet each and every visitor one by one.

With “Visit,” we may not be lucky enough to meet Bryan himself, but we are left with a deep sense of knowing the man as an artist, a generous spirit and a true cultural treasure.


Robert Levin

Robert Levin

Former reporter Robert Levin covered the people, businesses, governmental and nonprofit agencies of Bar Harbor. [email protected]
Robert Levin

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