Artist Ashley Bryan poses for a portrait in the workshop at his home in Little Cranberry Island in 2014. In honor of his 97th birthday Monday, Gov. Janet Mills declared it Ashley Bryan Day. Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

Gov. Janet Mills recognized Maine artist and author Ashley Bryan on his 97th birthday, proclaiming Monday as Ashley Frederick Bryan Day in the state.

For the first time in many years, Bryan spent his birthday not on his beloved Little Cranberry Island, but in Texas, where he spends winter with family. Because of the coronavirus, Bryan did not travel to Maine this summer.

“This is probably the first summer in a very long time he has not set a toe in the state of Maine,” said Nichols Clark, founding executive director of the Ashley Bryan Center. “Given everything going on, the plans are to keep him in Houston. Not that it’s his idea of a good time, but it’s not a good time to travel right now.”

Bryan has lived in Maine for 60 years, and moved to the island permanently after his retirement from Dartmouth College in 1988. His introduction to Maine came in 1946, when he studied at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture after serving in World War II.

In a statement that accompanied her proclamation, Mills said, “Ashley Frederick Bryan has enriched the lives of countless people in our state, our country, and our world. For generations, his art has uplifted the voices, cultures, heritage, and experiences of African-Americans, from the shores of Omaha Beach on D-Day to the shores of Little Cranberry Island, Maine. As a soldier, a teacher, an author and illustrator, a philanthropist and a resident of the State of Maine for over sixty years, Mr. Bryan has taught us to celebrate the unique spirit of every person and, together, to create a brighter future for us all. I hope the people of Maine will join me in wishing Mr. Bryan a very happy 97th birthday and in honoring his many remarkable achievements and contributions to our state.”

Bryan has written or illustrated more than 50 books, including “Beautiful Blackbird” and “Freedom Over Me” about the African-American experience. In her proclamation, Mills cites Bryan’s children’s books, art, puppets and stained-glass windows as part of his artistic legacy, and says he “continues to pave the way for Black writers and illustrators, creating opportunities for greater diversity in the world of children’s literature ….” She also notes his philanthropic efforts to build water tanks, libraries and schools in Kenya and South Africa.

“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 of the creative process, encouraging all to wake up each morning and ‘find the child in you,’ ” she wrote.

Mills planned to call Bryan directly on Monday afternoon to wish him well.

Last year, the University of Pennsylvania Libraries acquired much of Bryan’s personal archive. Clark thanked Mills for the proclamation. “Thank god Gov. Mills gets it,” Clark said. “We are so pleased and honored that she has the humanitarian outlook that she has.”

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