The late Ashley Bryan’s 99th birthday was celebrated on Little Cranberry Island July 13. PHOTO COURTESY OF BOB BOWMAN

Uplifting service celebrates Island artist Ashley Bryan

What a morning!

In his lifetime, Ashley Bryan authored and illustrated more than 70 books and won numerous awards for integrating African and Black American history and culture into American children’s literature.

CRANBERRY ISLES — Under a blue, nearly cloudless sky, a summer day when he would have been painting his neighbor’s dahlias, the late Ashley Bryan’s 99th birthday was celebrated on Little Cranberry Island. 

Reminiscent of a gospel revival, the dignified, yet fiery, celebration of the beloved artist and island resident’s life lifted the crowd up from their sorrow and set them down squarely on the road forward. Just as Bryan would have wanted. In fact, clapping his hands somewhere from heaven above, he even managed to get in the act too. At the service’s close, his recorded voice boomed out from speakers. 

First up was the Islesford Congregational Church’s Rev. Thomas Powell, who channeled Bryan, rousing the several hundred assembled last Wednesday, July 13, throughout the service, in the field overlooking Hadlock Cove. Rosa rugosa shrubs in bloom perfumed the still air, broken by chickadees’ song and children’s patter, as Bryan’s many relatives from the greater Houston area solemnly walked down the island road from the artist’s home to the town ball field to join the gathered, many of whom journeyed from elsewhere in Maine and beyond to pay their respects and honor to the world-renowned author, illustrator, storyteller and dear friend to all. 

Bryan’s family members came forward and placed up front his tri-corner American flag, dog tags and pin from his service in the U.S. Army during World War II. His tour of duty included taking part in the D-Day invasion of Normandy’s Omaha Beach in 1944. A box containing the artist’s ashes, wrapped in vibrant-colored cloth, also was set down. Bryan’s nephew, Ashley J. Swepson, read aloud a resolution from The Church of Bethel’s Family in Houston. That’s where Bryan had worshiped in recent years while living in Sugar Land, Texas, with his niece Vanessa Robinson, her husband, Charles, and their family. He died at home on Feb. 4 in Sugar Land. He was 98. 

“Good morning, it is good to see you on this glorious day. A day you might have found Ashley painting,” Powell said in in his welcoming words and address to God. “Each of us gathers today as those knit within the tapestry of the life of your servant Ashley. On this day, a celebration of his life, what would have been his 99th birthday, we gather. Some gather still mourning. Grant them comfort. Some gather themselves here with remembering gratitude. Grant them joy. Some gather with the delighting heart that still lives with Ashley’s gifts vibrant within. Gifts of time, talent, care, compassion, celebration, invitation, art and inspiration. May the tending and sharing of those memories bless us all. Some are family who can recount stories old and new. May we honor Ashley’s days and lives together with our words and our love.” 

And honor him they did. Their tributes took many shapes and forms. Pianist Christina Spurling’s luminous playing, soprano Annie Leonardi’s soaring voice, violinist Finn McGuinness’s sprightly performance and other musicians helped weave together Wednesday’s service. Karen Smallwood, assisted by Barb Fernald and Elise Mogensen, baked and served up two giant chocolate and vanilla cakes decorated to resemble the artist’s books. 

A mid-afternoon flotilla completed the day’s celebration. Boats large and small – from a rowboat to the Maine Seacoast Mission’s Sunbeam V – slowly proceeded to and circled outside Little Cranberry’s Bunker’s Cove where Bryan’s sole surviving brother and sister-in-law, Ernest and Joan Bryan, scattered his ashes from island lobster fisherman and artist Dan Fernald’s boat, Wind Song. 

Like the storyteller himself, the island community’s residents had their own tales to tell of their neighbor who was always quick to help out in any way, including shoveling out senior citizens – as his niece Bari tells it – in his mid-80s. He also joined the human chain passing island-bound groceries and other freight up the town dock’s steep stairs from the arriving mailboat, Sea Queen. His gestures of love and kindness – large and small – took many forms.  

Longtime friend Cynthia Lief recalled wintering on the island one year. 

“I resolved that I would always button my clothes from the bottom up because then Ashley told me I wouldn’t make mistakes. But he also assured me that if it were winter on Islesford and if you walked very low to the ground and stamped your feet very flat-footedly, you would never fall,” she related, drawing laughter. “So those were the little ones. And then there are the big ones when we resolve to wake up every morning and find that child in us.”  

Lief also read aloud Maine Governor Janet Mills’ proclamation declaring July 13, 2020, as “Ashley Frederick Bryan Day” in honor of the son of immigrants from the tiny British West Indies island of Antigua. As a young man, Bryan overcame racial prejudice and discrimination from art schools to pursue his passion and vision and win prizes for his work including a Newbery Honor, Laura Ingalls Wilder Award and the American Library Association’s Coretta Scott King-Virginia Hamilton Lifetime Achievement Award, among others, for his contribution to American children’s literature. During his life, Bryan wrote and illustrated more than 70 books. His picture books, bringing alive African folk tales and Black American spirituals in text and vibrant illustrations, helped transform children’s literature and learning.  

In his lifetime, Bryan further extended his mission channeling proceeds from his books and public engagements to Africa, where he traveled frequently and provided funds to build schools and libraries in Kenya.  

At home on Islesford, the name of Little Cranberry’s village, Bryan was equally engaged. In the days before Christmas, he enchanted island children with an elaborate German nativity scene and display with hand-carved figures, farm animals and other folk art collected during his time spent studying in Germany. Over the years, he did live readings and art sessions at the K-8-grade island school named for him. His front door was always open to kids to drop by to chat, help themselves to M&Ms, gummy bears and candies and marvel at the artist’s extraordinary toy collection from all corners of the globe.  

Ted Spurling Jr. was one of those children. His grandmother Serena “Rena” Spurling lived across from Robert and Helen Hellman’s house where Bryan initially stayed on the island. He and his sister used to take turns taking the morning mail to their grandmother. Aged 7 or 8, he would wander across the street to see what the artist was up to. 

“He was always doing something,” the 66-year-old lobster fisherman recalled. “One time, I found him on Helen’s lawn. He was standing on his head. I was a little kid. I asked him, ‘What are you doing?’ He replied, ‘You want to try? You put your two hands here, see, and then you put your head in a three-quarter pattern like this. Then, you push up with your feet and straighten your legs and voila!’” 

A gifted storyteller, Ashley Bryan’s niece Bari Haskins-Jackson regales and comforts the couple hundred folks gathered with funny and moving stories about her multi-faceted uncle.

Ashley’s niece, Bari Haskins-Jackson, took the microphone next. She described her uncle as a “vibrant jigsaw puzzle of a man with multiple pieces pieced together to create an incredible human being.” She quoted her grandmother, Olive Bryan, as having said that when her second eldest son of five children was born that “the angels came down from heaven and kissed him on his forehead.” Early on, Haskins-Jackson said she and other family members knew that Bryan belonged to the world and that they would have to share him. “And we did. Even though I hate sharing,” she chuckled. 

Like Bryan, Haskins-Jackson both comforted and eloquently urged the crowd on in their lives. Facing many challenges, and experiencing great sadness at time, she noted her uncle was “a religious man always connecting with God and the universe. You could see this in his art and his actions. He didn’t just talk the talk. He walked the walk. It was his art and his faith and his ability to continue to believe in the goodness of mankind that propelled him forward.” 

Returning to the podium, Powell powerfully conveyed the same message. Taking his cue from Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem “Pied Beauty,” the reverend told the crowd, “You, beloved, are dappled with the paint that Ashley has left upon you. Those beautiful shades of purple, of orange, of green – vibrant in every way. If you were to try and wash them off your hands, they would be under your fingernails and in your soul.” 

Powell, who lived across the street from the artist, says his neighbor practiced “divine hospitality” in the form of his grilled-cheese sandwiches and always putting aside his work to catch up with his extended, non-blood family who stopped by for a chat year-round. “Always was there room at his table. Room in his heart, room in his heart, room in his life. Room to listen, room to teach. Always room for one more person to call.” 

Anyone who sat at the artist’s wax cloth-covered table, they were family. 

“Always with Ashley, there was that embrace. You know it. Remember it. Always an embrace. Even faintly at the end, always an embrace,” Powell urged those gathered. “We are challenged by lives such as Ashley. Not to put the embrace in the future, but to remember that the embrace belongs in the now – right now. In your day, right now. There is no time like the present to practice divine hospitality. There is no one worth embracing more than the person seated right next to you this morning. You can practice divine hospitality right now.”  

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]