BAR HARBOR — Like the mouse that roared, Little Cranberry Island made a mighty sound last Saturday night when an impressive turnout of its residents helped fill the seats of the Criterion Theatre to support artist Ashley Bryan at a screening of the new documentary film about his life, “I Know a Man … Ashley Bryan.”
But the mightiest sound of all came from the 92-year-old artist, author, storyteller and indefatigable pied piper himself who, with his booming voice and magnetic presence, led the audience in an impromptu call-and-response poem by Langston Hughes even before the movie began. Afterwards, while simply responding to questions from the audience, Bryan quoted Shakespeare, John Donne, Plato and the New Testament. In fact, had the movie not been about Ashley Bryan, one could have said Ashley Bryan stole the show.
As for the film? While it would be an impossible task to contain more than a fraction of Bryan’s larger-than-life personality and nine decades of almost constant creative activity in a 75-minute documentary, filmmakers Robert Shetterly – a fine artist in his own right – and producer/director Richard Kane did a pretty remarkable job.
The filmmakers allow Bryan, using his own artwork where possible, to lead us through the significant events of his life. He recounts growing up in the tenements of New York, introducing us to his parents, his burgeoning creative energy, getting accepted at the prestigious Cooper Union and then getting drafted into the army in 1943. He recounts his experiences as a stevedore during WWII, which brought him to the beaches of Normandy on D-day – an experience he recounts as alternately deadly boring and filled with horror.
“But I always had a pencil to draw with and paper to draw on,” he says in the film. “I even carried them in my gas mask.”
Art, he says, was how he managed to transform the horror, the racism and the deadly ennui of his war experience into something he could process.
Eventually, he decided Little Cranberry Island off the coast of Maine would be his refuge. He recounts how when he arrived on the island for the first time, he watched as the men passed his luggage from one to the other to get it onto the dock.
“New York had changed when I came home from the war,” he says in the film. “But that spirit I remembered was here. I felt I had come home.”
Since that day, Bryan has traveled the world and achieved fame as a children’s book author and illustrator and renown as a much-admired art professor at Dartmouth. But Cranberry Island has remained a constant. He has repaid the island and its people for the safe harbor it has provided him by showing them how the smallest seemingly insignificant bits of flotsam and jetsam that wash up on the island’s shores can be transformed into the most wondrous things. All his handmade puppets, toys, games and sea glass windows tell a wonderful story. He shares all this with the islanders by keeping the door to his remarkable home open and by visiting the island’s little school, which is named for him. Watching the children’s faces light up as Bryan regales them with a story about a puking monster is a delight.
While Bryan is certainly aware of his profound impact on people – and doesn’t waste an opportunity to bask in the admiration he deserves – he manages both in the film and in person to avoid the slightest hint of hubris. As one audience member remarked afterwards, “he is certainly a man who has learned to live in the present.”
“I know my art is not always correct,” Bryan said, “But I have learned to accept that awkwardness. I know that if I corrected all that awkwardness, I’d have no presence.”