Visiting Ashley Bryan (Maine Post #2)

Alison Morris -- September 5th, 2007

Continuing the story from my last post…  My third Maine children’s book encounter was an intentional one — a visit to Ashley Bryan‘s house on Little Cranberry Island. About eight years ago, when I was working at the Dartmouth Bookstore Ashley dropped in to pay a visit to the wonderful Phoebe Stebbins, then owner of the store and long-time friend of Ashley’s. When Phoebe introduced us she insisted that I absolutely HAD to visit Ashley’s house some day and Ashley extended the invitation for me to drop by anytime. Phoebe sadly passed away a few years ago, but at age 84 Ashley is still alive and well and as sociable as ever, his door seemingly always open. When I called to see if he’d be "on island" last week he said to come by anytime and that I should just ask anyone on the island where he lived — they’d point the way. (The island’s year-round population is less than 100 people.)

Gareth and I rode a water taxi out to the village of Islesford, where we met up with our friends Aaron and Julia Green, and walked on to Ashley’s house, which is (as Phoebe had told me) more like a museum than a set of living quarters. Almost every surface in sight is covered with works of art and objects of play, which Ashley has collected on his journeys throughout the world or been given by various people over the years. The result is a feast for the eyes, an overwhelming menagerie of puppets and playthings, paintings and sculpture — all of it presided over by a man who seems never to tire of sharing it with others.

The photo below shows just one little corner of Ashley’s house, but it gives you some idea of what you’ll find throughout: toys suspended, carved objects, puppets, and dolls on every flat surface, pictures on the walls, cloth hangings in the doorways.

When we arrived at Ashley’s house he was already entertaining visitors but more than happy to entertain more. We were introduced to Darwin Henderson of the University of Cincinnati and Barbara O’Brien of Georgia Public Broadcasting, who’s been producing a series of documentaries about Ashley. She was waiting for him to make her copies of some of his childhood photographs, but he was distracted by the arrival of Maine puppeteer Nancy Tyndall and by our motley crew, whom he welcomed warmly, whisking us off to see the stained glass windows he’s been making since the 1950’s out of beach glass and papier-maché. The results are stunning, the uneven surfaces of each shard bending the light in unusual ways, the stamped letters of various bottle logos lending additional meaning to Ashley’s bright compositions. See for yourself:

Next we were ushered upstairs to Ashley’s studio, where he tends to work on his book illustrations in the evening, following a day of painting in the garden. Below, Ashley shows Julia an illustration from The Night Has Ears, Ashley shows off some of his recent garden paintings, and Gareth admires one of Ashley’s carved linoleum blocks.

Back downstairs we go… This time to another studio space, where Ashley showed us the puppets he makes from items he finds on his daily walks around the island. In the second photo below, Ashley is talking to Aaron, while Mochi (world’s most well-behaved puppy) stretches to catch the sunlight streaming down through the skylight above her.

Julia, a teacher at South Natick’s Eliot Montessori School was salivating at the idea of making puppets like these with her students. What a great lesson in recycling!

Propped up amid the collection of heart-shaped rocks in the photo above I found the note captured in the photo below — no doubt one of thousands just like it that Ashley has received from his fans.

I lost track of time while we were at Ashley’s house, as we took in shelf after shelf after wall after rafter after table of interesting objects, all of which clearly still excites Ashley and each of which comes with its own story.

After about three hours of socializing and oohing and ahhing and laughing, our group of four realized we’d have to catch the water taxi or spend the night on the island (though it occurred to me that I could think of worse things than being stranded with a man this entertaining, in a house this filled with stories). Below is a photo of Darwin Henderson, Aaron Green with Mochi, Ashley Bryan, Barbara O’Brien, and Gareth. Note the endless array of books and objects in the background and the button bouquet Ashley’s holding — my own contribution to his collection of whimsical, handcrafted fun.

6 thoughts on “Visiting Ashley Bryan (Maine Post #2)

  1. Michael Guilmet

    I had the pleasure of meeting Ashley Bryan at the Norman Rockwell Museum while his works were on exhibit there. I was fortunate to visit the day that Mr. Bryan was there. He is a wonderful person and made every person there that day feel like an old friend that he was thrilled to see and share his amazing life experiences with. It still amazes me that 15 minutes meeting and talking to Mr. Bryan, was a special experience that I will always remember.

  2. Sandy Leith

    What a wonderful trip back in time. I summered on Islesford between 1964 and 1967 from age 9 to 12 and our “rainy day” activity was to go to Ashley’s house and make stained glass-papier mache window hangings and listen to his incredible stories. He was inspirational then and remains so today. Thanks so much!

  3. LEE HOPKINS

    Ashley’s generosity is astounding. After his winning the first Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award for SING TO THE SUN (HarperCollins), a week later I found in my mail the original jacket art from WALK TOGETHER, CHILDREN. We’ve been friends for eons. How lucky I am. Lee

  4. Elizabeth Fithian

    Alison, I had the pleasure of meeting Ashley Bryan years ago at conference in New Orleans. I’ve always been a fan of his books and was eager to read your blog about the visit. I see now that his delightful and magical home matches his art and joyful personality. Thanks for sharing your photos!

  5. BRIAN KELLEHER

    Wow, Alison, you’ve fulfilled one of my “to-do’s” in life…to visit Ashley on Little Cranberry. I’ve seen a film which was made at his cottage, a number of my colleagues have visited Ashley there, and I’ve spent a lot of time with Ashley over the years at ALAs and other conventions, but your blog post did the best job yet of conveying the real magic of the man and his art and gifts. His hospitality and genuine warmth are legendary and it’s clear you were the receipient of all of that on your visit! I must say one of the things I’m proudest of in my tenure at Simon & Schuster is that I’ve been involved in publishing and selling books as wonderful and special as Ashley’s are, and have had the opportunity to get to know such a unique soul, if only a little bit. Thanks again for sharing so eloquently in words and pictures what must have been a really wonderful day.

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