At 95, Ashley Bryan, a resident of Little Cranberry Island’s village of Islesford for more than three decades, is one of Maine’s most important artists. The list of problems starts here: We don’t know him.

But we should.

Bryan has been a shining light in Maine since 1946 when he participated in the first year of the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, that quiet, artsy spot that has long been the most prestigious and notable artist residency in the country. There, he met the Zorachs who offered to let him stay on a house on their property in Cundys Harbor. Bryan then welcomed artists such as William Kienbusch and Walker Evans to Maine.

Bryan was a prodigy as a painter. But it wasn’t easy for him.

For starters, Bryan is black.

He was admitted to New York’s great art school, Cooper Union, which had a blind submission process, and that helped lead the way to Skowhegan, which also has a blind submission process. (If you’re wondering why I so strongly support blind juried shows over curatorial processes, you can start with that.)

Where folks could see he was black, things were a little tougher. He served, for example, in the segregated U.S. military as a stevedore, hitting the beaches of Normandy in support of D-Day, among many other duties.

His WWII drawings and the paintings that have been born from them have been a mainstay of his recent production. And, oh yes, he is still productive and sharp as a tack.

But we see essentially nothing of Bryan as a painter in his long overdue show at the Portland Museum of Art, “Painter and Poet: The Art of Ashley Bryan.”

Bryan is now best known as an illustrator of children’s books. To be sure, starting the young on their journey of story and image is an important task, but to pigeonhole Bryan into that role is problematic, particularly considering the source, or should I say, the sources.

The traveling rent-a-show now at the PMA was originally organized by the Massachusetts-based Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art. Should the PMA have taken the show? Absolutely. However, it’s not the same thing to bring the show to Maine, Bryan’s longtime home, as opposed to, say, Atlanta. The show at the PMA is handsome, well-hung, interesting and well-worth visiting. (And I do wish it were up in the front building rather than being lost in the back of the bus. Far fewer folks will see this show for its placement.) Bryan, after all, is a brilliant illustrator. But “Painter and Poet” does more to limit our view of Bryan as an artist – whitewashing (the irony of the term is no accident) him as an illustrator of children’s stories – than it does to reveal him as the great painterly artist he has been for so, so many years.

Front cover illustration from “Walk Together Children: Black American Spirituals,” linoleum cut on rice paper, 7 by 8 inches.

Of course, the works in “Painter and Poet” are excellent, but that’s because Bryan has been an excellent draftsman, painter, printmaker, sculptor, writer and artist for the last 80-plus years. He studied with, worked with and taught (he is retired as a painting professor from the local Ivy League stop, Dartmouth College, for example) a great number of America’s leading artists.

The saving grace of the show is the vitrine displaying Bryan’s “puppets” that he makes from found detritus that washes up onto the shores of Little Cranberry. Bryan’s family immigrated from Antigue, but these works practically quiver with the uncanny numinous power of ritualized African sculpture. Bryan’s powers are formidable: What should be quaint is anything but. And these are not African sculptures: They are born – literally – of the coast of Maine. Some are ambassadors. Some are haunting.

From the perspective of Bryan’s career as a painter, most notable in the show are the series of works related to “Freedom Over Me: Eleven Slaves, Their Lives and Dreams Brought to Life by Ashley Bryan.” The 2016 bestseller was besotted with awards: a Coretta Scott King Honor, a Boston Globe Book Award and, among others, a Newberry. These works feature imagined portraits of actual slaves who were sold as chattels. These lead the way, in part, because they combine the best of Bryan: painting and collage about real people who dared to dream despite being failed in the empathy department by others around them. To be sure, Bryan’s project is to humanize these people who were demeaned to the level of property (sorry, Kanye, but you proved to be a misguided loser with your slavery was a “choice” comment; I hope you get well soon) rather than attack the individuals who enslaved them, but Bryan’s sophistication leaks through: The contractual language of the collaged backgrounds reveals the Confederacy-supported institutional legal reality of the system instituted to enslave these mothers, children, brothers and sons by real people who were willing to sign their names to the evil confederacy of American slavery.

Sure, we can see Bryan’s extraordinary powers as a draftsman in “Painter and Poet,” but they lie pushed to the side as images for children or workplace doodles. The PMA label copy chatter is presumably well-intentioned – but is it? We see seven wartime drawings, but no paintings, of Bryan’s war buddies and a few machine scenes, and we hear from the Eric Carle Museum curator that Bryan drew such pictures while he was supposed to be on duty with comments like: “He was not going to let the war get in the way of pursuing his professional goal.” This is troubling stuff, especially considering Erich Carle’s past: Hearing the call, his family left America to go back to Germany before WWII, and according to the New York Times, Carle’s father was “drafted by the Nazis” (as opposed to the Wehrmacht, the German army). Carle himself has spoken of his service of digging trenches to defend against the Allies. In my conversations with Bryan, he has said he worked his butt off in service of America. And the fact that his drawings were made during downtime and in the long time after he was supposed to go home (apparently, getting black folks back from the front wasn’t a priority; Bryan, who is no complainer and who made the most of his time in Europe, couldn’t hitch a ride home for over a year) doesn’t appear. The war, it seems, is not really a comfortable topic for the Eric Carle Museum.

But why should the Portland Museum of Art suffer from that problem? Bryan has most of his wartime art in Maine, after all. In fact, not only does he have his war paintings, but also his paintings from throughout his venerable career – from the years he worked with the heroes of the Harlem Renaissance to the paintings he made this summer. It pains me to say it, but this reeks of the cheapening of the PMA. Cutting costs, sure. We get it. But these works are here and available to be loaned. Why not expand the rent-a-show? Again, introducing Bryan elsewhere as an illustrator, well, that’s fine. In that capacity, it is a worthy show. But he’s a Mainer and we deserve more than that. Bryan deserves more than that.

We deserve to see the textures on the wall – gritty, dark and otherwise. Not mere whitewash.

Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at:

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