Ashley Bryan, left, and his friend, neighbor and fellow artist Henry Isaacs discuss an exhibition of Bryan’s work at the Islesford Historical Museum in 2014. Isaacs and his wife Donna have donated more than 50 of Bryan’s artworks to the Bates College Museum of Art. ISLANDER FILE PHOTO BY DICK BROOM

Bryan exhibit celebrates a ‘cultural treasure’

“A painting titled “The Cook Does Not Have to Be a Beautiful Woman,” by Islesford artist Ashley Bryan, is among the artist’s works that have been donated to the Bates College Museum of Art.

LEWISTON — Fifty-three works by renowned Islesford artist and author Ashley Bryan, including paintings, drawings, prints, collages and children’s books, have been donated to the Bates College Museum of Art in Lewiston by Bryan’s long-time friends and neighbors Henry and Donna Isaacs.

Henry, himself a gifted artist, said of the donation, “These are the art works that have had such a profound impact on our lives and my art. This gift attempts to answer our commitment to Ashley of many years ago to preserve his pictures in Maine, so that future generations of artists could learn from Ashley and his art as we have.”

Most of the works that the Isaacs donated are in a new exhibition at the Bates museum titled “Let’s Celebrate Ashley Bryan!”

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the museum is currently open only to Bates students, faculty and staff. But the museum is producing a virtual tour of the Ashley Bryan exhibition, which is to be available via the museum’s website by Nov. 1.

“I’m not suggesting that experiencing it virtually is the same as seeing it in person, but in this current moment, it’s the best way that we can share it,” Bates College Museum of Art Director Dan Mills told the Islander.

“We’re doing it for everyone, but it will be especially great for children to be able to see the work of this internationally recognized children’s book illustrator.”

Last fall, the Ashley Bryan Center, which was created several years ago to preserve the artist’s legacy, selected the University of Pennsylvania Libraries as the permanent repository of Bryan’s archive. However, many of his works are in various museums and private collections, such as the Isaacs’.

Asked about the significance of the couple’s donation to the Bates museum, Mills said, “It’s really important for Bates, but also for Maine. We’re pleased to be a center of Ashley’s work in his home state.”

This untitled paper collage from “Beautiful Blackbird,” one of Ashley Bryan’s most well-known children’s books, is part of an exhibition of the artist’s work at the Bates College Museum of Art.

Mills noted that Bryan is known primarily for his illustrated children’s books, which have won numerous awards.

“As much as those are internationally recognized, we also would like to draw attention to his extraordinary paintings, which we think deserve similar recognition,” Mills said. “Our exhibition focuses a lot on his paintings over six decades.

“We are interested in seeing if we can build on this wonderful body of work, especially the painting part of the collection, and creating another center for Ashley’s work.”

Bryan has written and illustrated more than 50 books, many of them inspired by African folktales and Black American spirituals. In its introduction to the exhibition of his work, the Bates museum describes him as “one of Maine’s cultural treasures.”

Acclaimed poet and author Nikki Giovanni is a close friend of Bryan’s who has collaborated with him on two children’s books: “The Sun is So Quiet” in 1996 and “I Am Loved” in 2018. She spoke last Thursday as part of the virtual celebration of the opening of the Bates museum’s exhibition of the artist’s work.

“Poets have words, and that’s really all we have,” she said. “And we try to put our feelings into words; we try to put what we’ve learned into words. But we are so lucky to have painters like Ashley who embrace this world we live in, who find the wonderful colors and the love and the joy.

“All I think Ashley has wanted to do is bring some love to the world.”

Bryan, who turned 97 in July, has spent the past year or so with a niece in Houston. This summer he contracted COVID-19 but has fully recovered. Two weeks ago, he fell and broke his right wrist.

But when he joined Giovanni, virtually, for her talk last week, he was as upbeat and gregarious as ever. And he said he is looking forward to returning to his Islesford home and studio in the spring.

Giovanni said, “I’m hoping he will allow himself to heal. But, as we know, any painter wants to paint.”

Dick Broom

Dick Broom

Reporter at Mount Desert Islander
Dick Broom covers the towns of Mount Desert and Southwest Harbor, Mount Desert Island High School and the school system board and superintendent's office. He enjoys hiking with his golden retriever and finding new places for her to swim. [email protected]
Dick Broom

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