Art flowed out of Ashley Bryan like words come from the rest of us.

Children’s book author and illustrator Ashley Bryan used his rich, colorful art to illuminate a tale from the Ila-speaking people of Zambia in his modern classic “Beautiful Blackbird.” Courtesy of the Beautiful Blackbird Children’s Book Festival

From the time he was a teenage prodigy, his opportunities limited by his skin color, through his final days, Bryan turned seemingly everything he touched – paint, paper, found objects, historical documents – into art that was always striking, and usually full of joy.

Bryan, who was born in Harlem to Antiguan parents and lived on Little Cranberry Island off the Maine coast for decades, died last week at the age of 98. His art, from the dozens of books he wrote or illustrated, to the drawings and paintings of his time in World War II, to the “puppets” he made from items found on the island’s shore, lives on.

As it should. Memory played a large role in Bryan’s work. He used his rich, colorful art to illuminate African and African American culture, bringing new life to poetry, folktales and spirituals, as with “Beautiful Blackbird,” a picture book that won the 2004 Coretta Scott King Award from the American Library Association.

In “Freedom over me,” released in 2016, Bryan put words into the mouths of enslaved people found in the historical record. He had them long to use their talents – cooking, planting, playing music – within a loving community, rather than on the orders of the cruel landowners, who treated them as property.

Simply and effectively, the book highlights the humanity of the enslaved people, and the utter inhumanity of chattel slavery.


“Bryan gives voices to the voiceless and presents the dreams of slaves who went to the grave without living them,” one reviewer wrote.

Much the same balance can be found in “Infinite Hope: A Black Artist’s Journey from World War II to Peace.” In that book, released in 2019, Bryan relates his experience in the war – he landed at Omaha Beach on D-Day – and how art helped him endure.

In all of Bryan’s work, that optimism comes through. It was part of his approach to life, friends and family say. In all the best ways, he tried to stay like a child, open to experience, wonder and friendship.

Bryan, it seemed, woke up every day inspired to create and celebrate art, in whatever way felt right. Art could be more than something you did; it could be part of how you lived.

That was true for Bryan when he was young, trying to break through the barrier facing Black artists, and it was true through his final years.

Fittingly, his family said Bryan, forever the artist, was reciting poetry from memory until his final days.

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