If you, like me, have ever had the great good fortune to spend even so much as a single afternoon out on Cranberry Island, then the odds are very high that you, like me, had the great good fortune to be invited into the home of Ashley Bryan. Because that is what Ashley did. He invited you in.

Bryan Gabe Souza/ Portland Press Herald Staff

To his work, his mind, his heart, his soul … and also his home. Ashley invited you in. And really, when you get down to it, the differences between those things are nearly nonexistent. If you have ever read a book of Ashley’s, you’ve been invited in. If you have turned the page, you have moved from room to room. If you have read his words, you have heard his heartbeat. Ashley didn’t have compartments, Ashley didn’t work that way.

Puppets from the ceiling here, stained glass windows over there, quilt scraps on this surface, collage on that. Everywhere color! Everywhere creativity! Everywhere some wild idea in the process of being made tangible! Ashley’s life was a shout of joy, an out-loud laugh, and every single thing around him reflected that joy 10-thousandfold.

It is also important to understand: the reality of all that joy and love was a choice.

Ashley, who died on Feb. 4, was born in the Bronx, like my mom, but a few years before her, and with many opportunities removed. He was one of six children and showed an early love of art. Segregation and racial prejudice denied him many things. His gifts earned him a spot in New York City’s Cooper Union School of Art and Engineering. The war, however, took that away.

Ashley was drafted into World War II, where he faced not only the dangers of enemy fire (he was on Omaha Beach on D-Day), but also rampant and violent racism from his fellow servicemen. His experiences are transformed into inspiration in his book “Infinite Hope: A Black Artist’s Journey from World War II to Peace.”

Advertisement

It was in his children’s books, however, where he found his most lyrical voice. Through works such as “Turtle Knows Your Name” and “Beautiful Blackbird” he invited children into a world of love, acceptance, belonging and song.

Brunswick resident Heather D. Martin wants to know what’s on your mind; email her at [email protected]

shley’s astounding life is lovingly documented in the film, “I Know A Man … Ashley Bryan,” by Maine filmmaker Richard Kane. I had the honor of hosting the Maine premiere of the film back when I was the executive director of a historical theater in Bar Harbor. Ashley attended the opening and, though well into his 90s by then, still kicked things off the way he always did, by leading the assembled crowd in a rousing, loud, raucous recitation of the Langston Hughes poem, “My People.”

To watch Ashely address a crowd, well, there really was nothing else like it. He brought his whole self. As he spoke, as he moved, as he was, the people around him transformed. Silver-haired solid citizens began to giggle, eyes twinkling. Children recognized a kindred soul and ally. Individual personalities melted together, the edges between us blurring until we, as people, were all one bold, beautiful collage.

Ashley Bryan was 98 when he passed away peacefully last week. I think he knew how much he was loved, even by people he’d never met. For Ashley, I’m going to go outside and use my whole self to recite that Langston Hughes poem to the night sky and give thanks that Ashley Bryan always invited us in.

Comments are not available on this story.