Ashley Bryan, seated, with his nephew Sandy Campbell, left, and David McKnight, right, director of the Rare Book & Manuscript Library, during a visit to the Penn Libraries in January. Bryan's archive has been given to the library, where it will be available to students and researchers. ERIC SUCAR PHOTO

Bryan Archive celebrated



PHILADELPHIA — The University of Pennsylvania Libraries and Ashley Bryan Center are celebrating the library’s recent acquisition of the archive of renowned artist Ashley Bryan, an internationally recognized children’s book author and illustrator, poet, and humanitarian.

A public event was planned for Thursday, Dec. 5. Bryan, still active at the age of 96 and currently spending the winter in Houston, planned to make the trip to Philadelphia for the program.

Bryan’s archive came to the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts at the Penn Libraries through the Ashley Bryan Center, which has represented and preserved the artist’s legacy since 2013.

“Bryan’s archive will enable scholars to explore American history through the lens of a brilliant individual who countered racial prejudice through the transformative power of art,” says Constantia Constantinou, vice provost and director of the Penn Libraries. “This gift builds on the Penn Libraries’ existing collections related to children’s literature, including materials by William Steig and Atha Tehon, and furthers our ability to make unique historical perspectives discoverable for future generations.”

Bryan has made his home on Little Cranberry Island for the last fifty years. During the past three decades he has written and illustrated more than twenty children’s books celebrating his African American heritage. Bryan is one of the pioneers introducing characters of color — whether African, Caribbean, or African American — into the realm of children’s books.

His remarkable archive spans the period from his childhood in New York City to the present and includes extensive correspondence as well as materials created during his long and productive life.

The Ashley Bryan Center contacted a number of East Coast research libraries in their search for the best home for the archive. After examining the richness of the Ashley Bryan Archive in early 2018, Kislak Center curators David McKnight and Lynne Farrington enthusiastically recommended that the Penn Libraries submit a proposal for its acquisition.

“We are thrilled that Ashley’s archive has found such a good home, says Nichols Clark, founding executive director of the Ashley Bryan Center. “The range of his interests, the individuals he knew, the multivalence of his creativity, accord with the range and capacity of a major research university. Penn, from the outset, demonstrated that this archive would be extremely important to them, and we look forward to the realization of this enthusiasm.”

Financial support from the Ashley Bryan Center will assist in processing this extensive and culturally rich collection, which documents the 96-year-old artist’s evocative and creative legacy.

The archive includes original drawings and manuscripts for Bryan’s many book projects, along with correspondence dating from his days as a student at The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in the early 1940s and fan mail from admirers around the globe.

The Bryan Archive complements other recent Kislak Center acquisitions of archival materials related to the artist and children’s book author/illustrator William Steig and children’s book designer Atha Tehon as well as the recent gift of the Joanna Banks African American collection, one focus of which is children’s books.

Bryan has also said he likes the idea that his archive will be under the same roof as that of Marian Anderson, whom he greatly admires.

Bryan’s latest book, “Infinite Hope,” is an illustrated memoir. It recounts his experiences as an African American drafted into the segregated U.S. Armed Forces in 1943, including his firsthand account of serving as a stevedore on Omaha Beach after landing on D-Day+3, June 9, 1944.

Bryan’s story is told through the combination of text, archival documents, contemporary photographs, and drawings he made while on- and off-duty, which capture both the horror and ennui of war. He is frank about his experience of racial prejudice in the American army, and yet his emotions and responses are mediated through his art.

An exhibition of materials used in the book was set up for the event, and signed copies of “Infinite Hope,” along with the new 2020 Kislak Center calendar, “Vibrant Wonders: A Year Celebrating the Illustrations of Ashley Bryan,” were to be available for sale.

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