Editorial: Remembering Ashley Bryan 

Ashley Bryan was a national cultural treasure. For those here who had the pleasure of knowing him personally, he was a local treasure as well. And while the nation mourns an icon, our community mourns a friend and neighbor. 

Bryan died last Friday at the age of 98. Growing up in Harlem, N.Y., to immigrant parents and being drafted into a segregated Army in World War II, his life was anything but easy, but to say that his was a life well lived would be an understatement.  

Bryan was an artist, illustrator, writer, mentor, teacher and friend. He was also a humanitarian and quiet philanthropist who built schools and libraries in Kenya. 

Bryan spent his life breaking down barriers and his lived experiences were featured prominently in his works. His books often featured children of color and explored issues of racial diversity long before doing so was widely embraced. He paved the way for Black writers and illustrators.  

He also used art and writing to navigate some of the worst times of his life, especially his time in the Army. Drafted in 1943 while a student at The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York, Bryan later tells of keeping a sketchbook in his gas mask. For nearly seven decades, Bryan chose not to speak about his experiences during the war until he published “Infinite Hope: A Black Artist’s Journey from World War II to Peace” in 2019.  

“My sketches weren’t only to record the day’s happenings,” he wrote, “but also to level out the day … to find the humanity – that moment of grace when you transform experiences into something meaningful, something creative amidst the devastation around you, the ugliness of war.” 

The recipient of many awards, including the Coretta Scott King-Virginia Hamilton Lifetime Achievement Award, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award, several Coretta Scott King Awards, a Newbery Honor and countless other awards and recognitions, Bryan’s favorite honor is believed to have come from his island community. In 2011, voters at town meeting renamed the two-room schoolhouse on Islesford the Ashley Bryan School. According to the Ashley Bryan Center, which was founded in 2013 to protect and preserve his works, the author and artist said it was the greatest honor of his life.  

We can learn a lot from Bryan and his contributions that spanned decades. His life’s work stands as a celebration of equality, love and friendship, and we are all better for it.  

As Bryan said when he received the Farnsworth Art Museum’s annual Maine in America Award: “It is my hope that through my art, all artists will see what is beautiful in themselves and explore something of art. Making art is one of the most adventurous experiences you can have – so always make art and create stories around ideas that you have.” 

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