The personal papers of children’s book author, illustrator and fine artist Ashley Bryan are leaving his longtime home on Little Cranberry Island and moving to a permanent home in the special collections of the Penn Libraries at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

Artist Ashley Bryan poses for a portrait in 2014 in his workshop on Little Cranberry Island.

In a tentative agreement with the Maine-based Ashley Bryan Center, the Ivy League school’s Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts eventually will house the bulk of Bryan’s letters, correspondence, books, poetry, drawings, watercolors and paintings that have been part of his island home for decades.

Bryan, 95, is a painter, illustrator, poet, puppet-maker and all-around arts philosopher who tries to live every day open to new discoveries and enlightenment. He has illustrated more than 50 children’s books and won numerous awards and honors, including the Coretta Scott King–Virginia Hamilton Lifetime Achievement Award, Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal and the New York Public Library’s Literary Lions award.

The Ashley Bryan Center, which was created by longtime friends of the artist in 2013 to preserve his work, has been courting offers to house the collection from colleges and universities along the East Coast for several years, including Colby College and the College of the Atlantic in Maine. Nichols Clark, founding executive director of the Ashley Bryan Center, said the center was sensitive about keeping the collection in Maine, but “in range and scope, and, if you will, the massiveness of Ashley’s archive, it became clear that a university or a major research university was a more logical destination.”


Penn won out over Emory University in Atlanta because of its commitment to integrate the collection in studies across disciplines and its enthusiasm, Clark said. Penn’s proposal for the collection emphasized its public access and digitization, he noted. The Ashley Bryan Center offered the archive as a gift, without financial considerations, Clark said. The Kislak Center’s senior curator, Lynne Farrington, grew up in Old Orchard Beach, and called Bryan “a wonderful human being. We are excited that his papers are coming here, where they can live on.”


Farrington said Bryan is distinguished both for his children’s books and his work as a humanitarian. His archive is a valuable cultural resource, offering the perspective of an active artist concerned with a range of issues reflecting on African-American life in America from the 1920s to the present.

The University of Pennsylvania will celebrate the collection with an Ashley Bryan Day on Tuesday, coinciding with the school’s Martin Luther King Jr. observances. Bryan is planning to attend and will participate in a discussion about his life and work. Tuesday’s event also includes a screening of the film “Ashley Bryan … I Know A Man” by Maine filmmaker Richard Kane. Bryan has been spending time with relatives in Houston during the early winter, and plans to return to his home on Little Cranberry Island after next week’s activities in Philadelphia, the family said.

Bryan was born in the Bronx in New York City in 1923, served in the segregated Army in World War II and was part of the D-Day invasion of Europe. He has lived in the village of Isleford on Little Cranberry Island for 32 years, since retiring in 1987 from Dartmouth College. He first came to Islesford in 1946 while attending the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. For years, he has made sea-glass windows and hand-held puppets from debris that washes up on the island shores.


In a brief phone interview from Texas on Friday afternoon, Bryan said he felt gratified and relieved that his archive is going to a place where it can be shared for generations. “You can’t help but feel good that the work you are doing is deemed important enough that it will be preserved and open to anyone who is interested in working with it,” he said.

Farrington said the library would explore ideas for projects that engage the archive – digitization, exhibitions, conferences, lectures – and will think about all the ways to encourage its use. “We are thrilled with the prospect of Ashley’s archive coming to Penn and look forward to making it accessible to students, faculty and staff at Penn and across the world,” she said.


The collection includes thousands of drawings and hundreds of paintings, as well as decades of personal correspondence between Bryan and his friends. Of particular interest is correspondence between Bryan and his friend from Cooper Union, Eva Brussel. Brussel moved to California for health reasons, and the two remained in contact until her death a few years ago. The letters are of personal and historical importance as an archival record of an artist over time, Clark said, and because they cover a wide swath of his personal and professional life.

Bryan kept everything. His files are a biographer’s trove, Clark said. The archive also includes letters between Bryan and the Spanish cellist and composer Pablo Casals, whom Byran befriended and sketched after the war in Paris. There are many drawings of Casals performing in Paris with other musicians in the early 1950s.

The decision to house Bryan’s collection at Penn will not prevent Maine museums, academic and art institutions from accessing, borrowing or owning parts of the collection, Clark said. It is massive in scope, and it remains unclear how much Penn will physically house. Much of it – “the most important” personal material that came from Bryan’s file drawers – already has been removed from the island and is in storage in Massachusetts.

Much of the rest will remain on Little Cranberry, at least for the time being. “We are sensitive to the fact that we do not want to strip Ashley’s house bare,” Clark said, noting that Bryan still lives there most of the year. “There will be a staging of the transfer of the gift. Once we know as precisely as possible what Penn wants, then we will figure out what to do with the balance of the material. As the papers settle, this will not preclude us from placing some material in the state of Maine. The puppets and stained glass will stay in Maine, and the things very near and dear to the island will remain on the island for the foreseeable future.”


The Ashley Bryan Storyteller Pavilion, adjacent to Bryan’s island home, will help maintain his presence on the island and tell the story of his life. The meditative space is the permanent home for Bryan’s sea-glass window panels and other works on a rotating basis. “Unless Penn wants to take it on, we hope to find an institution in Maine to partner with to be a custodian with the pavilion,” Clark said.


Bryan said he wanted to get back to Maine so he could get back to work. In addition to finishing a book about his World War II experiences, he is finishing a book of collages inspired by the poems of Christina Rossetti, due for spring publication by Simon & Schuster.

He is creaky, but his mind is sharp. Bryan has lived off-island in the depths of recent winters to get away from the cold. But it’s hard to keep him away for long. When he learned he could take a direct flight from Philadelphia to Bangor after the events at Penn, Bryan insisted on coming back to Maine.

He’s a stubborn old coot, Clark said, who pines for the island whenever he is away.

Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

Twitter: pphbkeyes

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