For five decades, Ashley Bryan’s works have shown children that black lives matter

More than 70 works from the award-winning children’s book author and illustrator are on display at the High Museum from April 1 to January 21
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Ashley Bryan color birds
A collage from Bryan’s 2003 book, Beautiful Blackbird, which won the Coretta Scott King Award for illustration

The birds’ colors were mirrored in the waters: Ashley Bryan (American, born 1923), ca. 2002, from Beautiful Blackbird (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2003), mixed media collage on paper.

In the first two years of its annual series featuring the work of children’s book illustrators, the High Museum has showcased much-loved superstars Mo “The Pigeon” Willems and Eric “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” Carle. The artist featured in this year’s exhibition—Painter and Poet: The Wonderful World of Ashley Bryan (April 1-January 21, 2018)—may not have quite the instant familiarity, but “he’s someone that we think every Atlantan should know,” says cocurator Ginia Sweeney.

Bryan, 93, grew up in the Bronx and learned to draw and paint at free classes run by the Works Progress Administration. He attended art school at Cooper Union and later won a prestigious Fulbright scholarship, but it wasn’t until 1967, when Bryan was 44, that his first book was published.

Ashley Bryan "Freedom Over Me"
An illustration from Ashley Bryan’s most recent book, Freedom Over Me

Stephen dreams: Ashley Bryan, 2015, illustration for Freedom Over Me: Eleven slaves, their lives and dreams brought to life by Ashley Bryan (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2016), diluted tempera and black marker pen on paper.

Inspired by the black oral tradition, many of Bryan’s books are reworkings of traditional spirituals, folk stories, and poems. “His works are a celebration of African American experience and offer black children an important opportunity to see themselves represented in the pages of books,” says Virginia Shearer, the exhibition’s other cocurator.

Painter and Poet features illustrations from 20 of Bryan’s children’s books, as well as a selection of puppets fashioned from objects found near his home in Maine and sketches that he made while stationed in Europe during WWII. One of the highlights is a series of 10 multimedia works from his newest book, Freedom Over Me, published last fall. Based on historical records from the 1800s, the book gives imagined voices to 11 slaves and includes vibrant portraits and poems detailing their hopes and dreams.

“We all have dreams, but slaves were never asked about theirs,” said Bryan in an interview with School Library Journal. “All my life I’ve said that no matter what I experienced, nothing would keep me from drawing. While creating this book I saw myself, a black man, reading, drawing, and painting freely.”

This article originally appeared in our April 2017 issue.

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