Throughout his life, Islesford artist Ashley Bryan retained his childlike delight and wonder at the world and its people. His joyousness was contagious. PHOTO COURTESY OF PETER RALSTON

Islesford artist Ashley Bryan remembered

CRANBERRY ISLES — Since birth in 1956, I have had the fortune to spend summers on Little Cranberry Island. As children, we roamed the island as though it were ours. We hunted for starfish, periwinkles and other creatures in tidepools. We fished for pollack and mackerel off the floats. We swam and rowed in between the pilings under wharves. We played house in structures cobbled together from driftwood and boulders on the rocky shore. We mixed imaginary drinks with seawater and charcoal – calling one such beverage “Grusto” – in rusted cans washed up on the beach. We raced around on our bikes all day and saw each other home with flashlights at night. 

In the mid-1960s, Ashley Bryan invited us – island and summer kids alike – to converge in his yard one sunny day. Like us, he collected sea glass among many other things tossed up by the sea. He, too, delighted in finding the rarest red and blue, violet, green, brown and white frosted bits and shards in our ranking of the color’s abundance and value. For our session, he asked us to bring our stashes of beach glass. 

Out on the lawn, at the summer home of his friends Robert and Helen Hellman, whom he had met in France’s Aix-en-Provence in 1946, Ashley showed us how to make paper mâché – the framework – to hold together differently shaped pieces of blue, green and other hues to form a bird, flower, boat or some other thing of our choosing. As kids, we loved tearing up newspapers into strips and then mixing them with water, wallpaper paste and maybe some Elmer’s glue. The best part was mashing and turning the mixture into a pliable pulp. We applied our hands to the task like grape pickers stomping on harvested fruit with their feet. 

Under sunny skies, we moved around and fitted our pieces of glass together — like a puzzle — on waxed paper. He showed us how to use the paper mâché like a pencil to shape the desired form with the glass. Our small, sea-glass windows then baked in the sun in the front yard at the Hellmans, where Ashley was staying that summer. In subsequent sessions, if it was raining, we created our sea-glass windows in the enclosed front porch and Ashley baked them in the kitchen stove’s oven.  

Ashley Bryan holds up a child’s sea glass creation, such as those he taught island children how to make in the 1960s, to catch the light.

Back then, you could see our creations proudly hanging in windows of many island homes. Decades later, when his beach-glass panels illustrating scenes from the life of Christ had become famous, he shared his paper mâché recipe with me again and showed how he always kept a small container of the wet mash at the ready in case the spirit – and sea glass – moved him to make a window. When my twin daughters Blue and Skye were young, we used Ashley’s recipe to make our own sea-glass panes.  

Way back, before he had his own island house, I used to see Ashley quite a bit because my family’s house was only a few minutes from the Hellmans. I remember how he enjoyed playing a recorder sitting on the front steps of a once-vacant old house on the edge of a swamp. I also remember seeing him do headstands in the Hellmans’ backyard bordering the Hadlock cemetery. He also loved to play tennis and I can picture him swinging a racquet on the then Morseman family’s court.  

Throughout my life, Ashley was a friend, mentor and constant when I was off and on the island also known as Islesford. Like others of my generation, he saw us through childhood, adolescence, careers, marriages and deaths in the family. His door was always open, with his standing offer of coffee and one of his famous grilled cheese sandwiches and sweets in a dish on his waxed cloth-covered table. I, especially, loved visiting him in the dead of winter when few of his far-flung fans ventured out to see his extraordinary toy collection, oil paintings of flowers, book illustrations and other works. He always had an apropos poem to recite by heart or inspirational verse in his pocket. 

Over the past decade, Ashley has felt like a silent partner as he discreetly referred friends to me to rent and keep my very quirky, century-old house going. One example comes to mind.  

As was my custom, I liked to get a jump on the rental season and began scrubbing floors before the water was turned on. One bitter-cold day in late March, I walked up with a few buckets to Ashley’s to load up on water. An hour or so later, I heard a vehicle struggling to get down my driveway that was barely passable in the thick of mud season.  

Who, I thought, would even attempt to drive down the road when getting stuck was a likely outcome? I went to investigate and, lo and behold, it was Ashley. He had commandeered his dear friend and partner in crime Susie “Soos” Krasnow. He and the storekeeper alighted from the vehicle with more buckets of water for me. Ashley, though, took the prize proffering a chocolate bar to get me through the floor scrubbing.  

That, in essence, was who Ashley was. Artist, writer, musician, but most of all a wonderful human being. I will feel his smile, warmth and laughter when I get busy and scrub those floors this spring.  

Letitia Baldwin

Letitia Baldwin

Arts Editor at The Ellsworth American
In addition to editing the Arts & Leisure section, Letitia edits special sections including Out & About, Overview, Health Quarterly, Your Maine Home, House & Garden and Get Ready for Winter. She comes from Chicago, Ill, but has deep family ties to the Cranberry Isles. [email protected]

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