Remembering ‘National Treasure' Ashley Bryan, Prolific Author & Illustrator

In addition to being a writer and illustrator for dozens of children’s books like "Beautiful Blackbird," for which he won multiple Coretta Scott King Awards, Bryan’s artistic works have been featured in museums across the country

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Mainers and others across New England are mourning the loss of Ashley Bryan, a prolific, award-winning children’s author and illustrator whose work has been displayed across the country.

On Friday, Bryan died at the age of 98, according to an announcement on the website of the nonprofit Ashley Bryan Center.

After years teaching at Dartmouth College, Bryan built on his Maine residency by moving full-time into his home on Maine’s Little Cranberry Island near Bar Harbor during the late 1980s.

A school on the island has since been named for him.

In recent years, Maine Gov. Janet Mills has spent some time there with Bryan and proclaimed July 13, 2020, as Ashley Frederick Bryan Day in Maine.

Among the accomplishments of Bryan’s listed in her proclamation, Mills highlighted his serving "in a segregated battalion of the U. S. Army where he participated in the D-Day invasion, documenting his experiences in real-time through writing and art, and finally telling this important and inspiring story in 2019 in his celebrated memoir Infinite Hope."

She also noted how he "enriched the lives of island residents, visitors, and school children in Maine and around the world with over 50 books including Beautiful Blackbird and Freedom Over Me," and "illuminated the African-American experience and cultural heritage for which he has been recognized by universities and institutions internationally, and continues to pave the way for Black writers and illustrators, creating opportunities for greater diversity in the world of children's literature."

"Mr. Bryan has made it his life's work to celebrate the unique spirit of every individual, offering them the gift of his love and friendship, and in sharing his understanding," reads one other line in the proclamation.

In a statement released Saturday on Bryan’s passing, Mills said in a statement she was "deeply saddened" to learn he had died and called his death, "a tremendous loss, but we are immeasurably better for his many, many gifts to our world."

In addition to being a writer and illustrator for dozens and dozens of children’s books like "Beautiful Blackbird," for which he won multiple Coretta Scott King Awards, including a lifetime achievement award, Bryan’s artistic works, from puppets, to paintings, to prints have been featured in museums across the country in cities like Atlanta and Milwaukee over decades.

More recently, there was an “Ashley Bryan in Song” exhibition at the Eric Carle Museum in Amherst, Massachusetts that just closed last November.

The Boston Pops also used some of his illustrations during its 2021 Holiday Pops concerts and said it was mourning his loss in posts to Twitter on Saturday.

Also remembering Bryan are staff at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, where he was an artist-in-residence in 1999.

"I think he made a really deep impact here," said Tiffany York, the assistant director of the museum’s artist-in-residence program.

York began her career at the museum after Bryan had left, so the two only spoke by phone but she explained that through that conversation and by talking with staff who did get to know Bryan that "he was a generous and giving person" who "had this light about him."

York added that Bryan made a particular impact on children and students whom he worked with from schools that were partners with the museum and, when his time there concluded, he left behind storybooks that are now part of the museum’s artists-in-residence library.

"It is really sad to hear that he passed on, I know there are many people here in Boston disappointed and sad about his loss," she said.

Back in Maine, hundreds of students are expected to get an introduction to Bryan’s work over the next few weeks, with free art kits centered around "Beautiful Blackbird."

The nonprofit arts group Waterville Creates! is giving the kits, which contain glue sticks, colorful paper and instructions on how to draw blackbird, out to Maine school children with the intent that they make collages to form their own storybooks,

Many of the kits will also contain a copy of "Beautiful Blackbird" as well.

"We think of him as a national treasure," said Serena Sanborn, Education and Outreach Manager for Waterville Creates!, telling NECN/NBC 10 Boston in a Monday interview that Bryan’s work was chosen to highlight a black artist tied to Maine during Black History Month and because "we just felt like his work was perfect for families."

In a sign Bryan’s legacy is very much alive and filled with much to and see, Mainers will continue to remember Bryan’s lifetime of achievements through the year with the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, Maine having named him its 2022 Maine in America Award recipient.

"He was really special to Maine, he worked for people to have self-expression, joy and vibrancy in their lives and we need that more than ever," said Sanborn.

"You can be any age to really appreciate the love and understanding of the world that Ashley has," said York, adding "there are very few people who know how to tell stories as beautifully as Ashley, though his drawing, his words and his poems."

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