#12: Ashley Bryan and Aree Chung 2016
Always Creating, May 12, 2017
Interviewed by writer/illustrator Arree Chung, Ashley Bryan reminisces on his long life, including his pathbreaking career as a writer and illustrator of children’s books. During his childhood in the Bronx, his service in World War II, his art studies, and his first forays into publishing in the 1960s, Bryan overcame prejudice and other obstacles to make art in every circumstance. Even in his nineties, Bryan exudes joy and childlike curiosity, testifying to the life-giving power of playfulness. Opening conversation with host Lisa Ann Cockrel and Arree Chung.
- Ashley Bryan,
- Beautiful Black Bird
- Let it Shine
- Sail Away
- Langston Hughes, “I Dream a World”
- Nancy Larrick, “All-White World of Children’s Books”
- Rainer Maria Rilke, “Was
wirstdu tun, Gott, wennich sterb”
Lisa Ann Cockrel (host): Welcome to Rewrite Radio, the podcast from the Festival of Faith & Writing. I’m Lisa Ann Cockrel, the director of the Festival, and I’ll be your host. This is the place where you can listen back to conversations we’ve had with writers and readers as we celebrate the written word together for over two decades. In each episode you’ll hear a session that took place at the Festival. It might be a reading, an interview, a lecture, a panel conversation, or something else entirely.
Today’s episode of Rewrite Radio features a conversation between two writers who also illustrate books for children. Arree Chung, best known for his book, Ninja, first met Ashley Bryan at a conference almost ten years ago when he was still an aspiring author. Then, as now, Ashley was a living legend in the literary world.
At the age of 19, he was drafted out of art school and into a segregated army during World War II. He survived in part by drawing, stowing supplies in his gas mask when necessary. After the war, Ashley completed his art degree, studied philosophy and literature at Columbia University on the GI Bill, and then went to Europe on a Fulbright scholarship, seeking to understand why humans choose war.
He would go on to become the first African American to publish a book he both wrote and illustrated and would then publish more than fifty books and win numerous awards including the Coretta Scott King Virginia Hamilton Lifetime Achievement Award, The Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal, and the New York Public Library’s Literary Lions Award. Throughout the United States and Africa, libraries, children’s rooms, and literary festivals are named for Ashley. As nice as these honors are, Ashley says, it’s the joy of creation and the excitement he sees in children’s eyes that delight him most.
Ashley published his most recent book Freedom Over Me last September at the age of 93; and many consider it his most powerful work yet. Based on an actual 1828 document that lists eleven people for sale along with cows, hogs, and cotton, Ashley imagines the lives of these slaves and their full humanity: black people who were trafficked for the profit of white people and who fought back by singing, loving, and secretly teaching one another to read.
I recently called up Arree to talk about Ashley’s influence on his own work and their conversation at the 2016 Festival.
Arree Chung: [00:02:26] Hello?
Lisa: Hey, Arree, it’s Lisa Cockrel.
Arree: Hi Lisa, how are ya?
Lisa: I’m good. How are you?
Arree: I’m doing well. Thanks for calling.
Lisa: Oh, my pleasure.Where did we catch you today?
Arree: Oh, I’m just working on some illustrations at home.
Lisa: Cool, is this a home office? Do you typically work at home or are you working out of an office?
Arree: Ya well, my office is Starbucks. [chuckles]
Lisa: [chuckles] Like many of us.
Arree: Yeah … well, I pay them well.
Lisa: Mhm, mhm. By the hour almost!
Arree: I know. [chuckles]
Lisa: Well again, thanks for being willing to talk about this. I knew you were a big fan of Ashley but I didn’t realize you had actually met him years before at a conference. So, tell me about meeting Ashley for the first time and what first drew you to him.
Arree: Yeah! Well, I was just starting my children’s book endeavor, so I knew I wanted to make picture books. So, the go-to place to learn and connect with publishers, editors, and agents and bookmakers is SCWI, Society for Children’s Books, Writers, and Illustrators. But one of my first national conferences that I went to, I actually didn’t know who Ashley was at the time. I just went to a breakout session and I just heard him speak and share his work and share his love of poetry and I immediately became a fan.
Arree: It’s so hard to make this career happen and you have to have a lot of passion and determination and grit and just hearing his story and, you know, he still has the curiosity and the life of a child, you know?
Lisa: He really does! Right.
Arree: Yeah. So I was immediately a fan and when you invited me and asked me if I would like to interview him, I jumped off of my seat and was like, “Wow! That’s so nice!”
Lisa: [chuckles] Right, well, I think one of the things that really comes through in your conversation with him is the extent to which Ashley is just fearless when it comes to the idea of play and also, like, connection with other people; which are things that, as you mentioned, he kinda has the life of a child. There is something so deeply almost childlike in his willingness to play and connect with other people that frankly I think as adults we become much more sheepish about or kind of self-conscious in ways that kind of stifle those instincts and he has managed to continue to cultivate those aspects of his life and his work. You know he says, like, “Always be connecting” and he is even engaging with the audience during the talk. You can see that, and I wonder how those examples have even influenced your own work, and your thoughts about your work as you have been trying to create a career and just create work that connects with children?
Arree: [00:05:34] Yeah, for sure. I think just from observing his art and seeing how he collages things together and how he’s cutting things off and I think in the interview he mentioned using his mother’s scissors that he wasn’t able to play with before and now he has inherited them and he gets to play with them now. Just seeing his work and also listening to him talk about how he thinks about things.
It just all sort of reminds me that the best parts come out when you’re having fun and not to be afraid of playing and I think you’re right that most people as they get older become afraid of playing around. Of, you know, not everything has to have an exact purpose. It’s okay to mess around. It’s okay to cut things up and paste things together and just make things up out of the curiosity of it. You know I look at those wooden sculptures or those sculptures that he has made of found objects on the beach and I just think they are so cool! And he’s just grabbing things and reacting to them and tapping into that inner voice and that’s what makes you a unique artist. You know, so I try to take those lessons and it just inspires me because you never know what you’re going to be fascinated with next and what you wanna make.
Lisa: Mhm. For sure.
Arree: Yeah—and I hope that when I am ninety-something that I’m making work as well, you know—[chuckles]
Lisa: Uh huh!
Arree: —And just as vibrant and curious and passionate about making things and sharing them, you know. That part about community I think is really powerful as well because he moved to different cities and different places to connect to new people and he had mentioned in his interview that he didn’t want to just be around just intellectuals that are making art—he wants to connect with everyone.
Lisa: One of the things that you both talk about in the conversation as authors who are also illustrators is the way in which you’re using, you know, the way in which we use art both words and images as ways to get closer to something for which there’s not really any words or images. And so, there is kinda this interesting way in which you’re trying to create pathways. And I wonder in your experience, which kind of comes first in your work? The words or the images, or is that a helpful way of thinking about it?
Arree: Well I’ve been thinking about storytelling as words and images and that images are a medium per se and words are another medium. I actually teach a course on making picture books and I encourage writers to draw and often times I get push back. They are like “What? People tell me writers shouldn’t draw!” And, I’m like, “Anybody can draw! You used to draw when you were five!” Right? It’s good to not put those limitations on yourself and to think of it as: What’s the best way I can tell the story?
Lisa: So for you a story comes before you are even thinking words or images?
Arree: Yeah, well sometimes, sometimes you have just like an image that you see in your head or you see in life. You see something, you observe it and you’re like, “oh I need to capture that.” And how can you capture that as fast as you can, and you scribble it in your notebook; sometimes you write a few words that described how it felt. And then the magic is, when you go home, how do you capture that feeling and then put it into a story? That’s where all the creation comes in.
Lisa: [00:09:38] Yeah, which reminds me of something else that you guys talked about in this interview which is that we are all creators and that we all start with what we have and turn it into something new. Whether that’s kind of when you’re cooking dinner [chuckles] you know, when you’re starting with certain ingredients which you turn into a meal or if you are struggling with an idea that you use a medium like words or images to then turn into a story or some other piece of art that can be shared.
Arree: Yeah, absolutely.
Lisa: So if you’re new to Ashley’s work, where would you recommend people start?
Arree: He has such a great range of books; so there’s poetry, picture books, found objects. I would just look him up at your local library and kind of explore from there.
Lisa: Sure, okay. Well, thank you so much again both for talking today but also for having this conversation at the Festival with Ashley—It was really great to hear both of you kind of in conversation about your work.
Arree: Well thank you!
Arree: Great! Well, have a good one!
Lisa: You too, bye!
Lisa: And now, Ashley Bryan and Arree Chung in conversation about “All Things Bright and Beautiful” at the 2016 Festival of Faith and Writing.
Arree: [00:11:04] So I have a little story to tell—I started my artistic career about ten years ago and I went to an SCWI conference (it’s short for Society for Children’s Books, Writers, and Illustrators), and I met Ashley about eight years ago at my first conference. At that conference, I was so inspired because Ashley has persevered through the depression, racial discrimination, and he’s able to bring such beauty through words and imagery. And so today, I am so honored to be able to ask him all the questions I have been wondering for the last ten years.
[Ashley Bryan laughter]
Arree: And I want to really unlock a lot of his history as well as the secrets of life of being so joyful and living with a childlike curiosity. So, the first thing I’d like to ask you about is growing up in Harlem in the 1920s.
Ashley Bryan: In the Bronx…
Arree: In the Bronx, what was that like?
Ashley: Yeah, born in Harlem, raised in the Bronx in New York City.
Arree: And you had a big family?
Ashley: Six children: four boys, two girls, and three cousins (who my parents raised when my aunt died) tenement apartments, five, six stories, head and foot in the beds. [laughs]
Arree: Were your parents creative?
Ashley: Yes they were. They had us—that’s already creative. Six children! [laughs]
Ashley: And of course, my mother, she sang from one end of the day to the other. Always singing! When friends visited, they look at me and say, “Your mother sings!” I thought all mothers sang! And so, in the hymns I hear today, I know I hear my mother’s singing.
Arree: When she was singing, did images come to your head even as a child back then?
Ashley: Yes. Always. That’s what words do. They create images. And my dad was a printer—he learned—he was a printer—they were born in Antigua in the West Indies and he was an apprentice as a young boy to the printing trade. When they came to the United States in the early ’20s when the great migration of peoples from, the blacks from the Caribbean Islands, they settled in New York in the early ’20s and the children were all born and raised in New York City.
My dad, when he came, was given the mop and the broom and later on, I asked my dad about racial discrimination or so and how it was with him. He didn’t talk about it. What he said was: “They gave me the mop and the broom.” He says, “I’m in these big hotels downtown in New York and all I could see were those pretty legs going by—I knew I wouldn’t last. So I went to British consulate and I got a letter from them saying I’d been in the First World War and I’m apprenticed as a printer and I would like a job in downtown New York with the Italian printers Muranos and Bellinis.” And he got in and that’s what he did even through the Depression years. When their work ended, he had his own shop in downtown New York on Christie Street and that’s what he did until he retired.
Ashley: Find a way—he didn’t tell me, “You must persevere and find a way.” He just said, “Those pretty legs—I knew I wouldn’t last…” So he went to a higher authority, the British government. For each one of us, we are talking about higher authorities here, it doesn’t matter who that is—it could be your mother, father, a friend! Or anyone! But don’t be stopped because of some kind of some stupid regulation.
Arree: So you learned that first hand from your dad?
Arree: Tell us about the neighborhood in Harlem in the Bronx.
Ashley: [00:15:06] Well, you know, I grew up with a sense of community. That’s what I’ve lived. I didn’t think of anything other than for an individual to try and create community wherever you are. That apartment tenement house—we knew everyone, we looked after everyone. And in the good weather, the tenants would be out on the street, they’d be playing instruments, or games or whatever. They looked after their children—that was community.
I now live on a little island off of Acadia National Park. I’m a black person. Less than one percent of black people in the state of Maine. I have a scholarship from college that gave me a chance to paint outdoors in Maine. And I asked them, “Find me a place on one of those islands off of the coast!” Because the Acadia National Park we visited and have seen them and I said, “find a place.” I come to this little island with all of my gear—someone reaches for it, and passes it to the next person who passed it, so I said, “Oh! It’s a chain of hands! Just like the tenement apartment in which I grew up!” I was home, that was family.
Arree: Was it a diverse neighborhood?
Ashley: I’m the diversity! [laughs]
Arree: Right, in Maine. But in the Bronx—
Ashley: Oh, in the Bronx it was a mixed community
Arree: It was mixed?
Ashley: Yes, there was the Irish, the Italian, the German, the French—all within that Bronx area. We had a large Jewish community. Beth Kida Avenue, Billy Basket, that novel was built on that street of Jewish markets and that’s where I lived. As a child in elementary school, I saw this great big church with bells that rang and had bright colored windows! And I said to my ma, “I want to go to that great, big, pretty church!” So my ma took me to that church. I was the first black to enter. It was a German Lutheran church with German services in the ’20s when I entered and English services. I grew up in that church and soon the children in that elementary class with me had been my friends through life. German students—German speaking, they were speaking English, the children, but they came from a generation of German speaking people.
Arree: See I think that’s so wonderful because you grew up in a diverse community and everyone—
Ashley: A diverse community, yes.
Arree: Right, and everyone was family in the neighborhood.
Ashley: So you taught something important. You have had programs on racism, here. And you know what an invented word that is. There is no such thing! We are all one blood of different blood types, that’s all. You may come from, say, Johannesburg in South Africa? From Helsinki in Finland? From Tokyo in Japan? But that’s your definition. When you create as European countries did, a white, a black, a yellow, a brown—that’s fictitious. That has no meaning at all! But so much of our attention is focused on that kind of thinking. Forget it! But we have to deal with it because it—we are still on the thing of racism—is what it is in the bulk! But think through it! If we are of one blood, of one family, what does the color have to do whether you come from China or Japan or from Israel or wherever?
Arree: That’s right. We’re all under God’s, we’re all God’s children.
Arree: Praise God. So coming from this diverse community, you had, you went to a predominantly white school? Is that right?
Ashley Bryan : There were always people of different nationalities in our class. Three or four blacks…
Ashley: And the rest were white students. So, I was used to growing up with that predominant white community around the blacks. Although in the Bronx, there would be a house of black tenants and then across the street or next-door would be white tenants and they had also sometimes even a private house mixed in with the tenement houses. It was in that open structure in that way. And that’s the way it held until an expressway barreled through the neighborhood and wiped out the Italian and the German communities and it became, well, people began leaving areas.
Arree: [00:19:50] Tell us about your teachers that encouraged you into pursuing art, and how did they influence you?
Ashley: The arts?
Arree: Your teachers in school, how did they help you with art?
Ashley: Oh! You know all through elementary, junior and high school—all white teachers. During the Depression, yes, always encouraged because of my talent. I was always given paper and materials by these teachers. High school—Theodore Roosevelt High School in the Bronx—into all the special clubs. Teachers in my graduating year in high school, they helped me create a strong portfolio, because I needed a scholarship to go on to college.
Arree: And the first school that you applied to rejected you based on race—is that right?
Ashley: Yes, the first school I went to, to try to get a scholarship...
Arree: Right, the first one?
Ashley: Well, when I went to the school, they looked at my portfolio and said, this is the best portfolio we have seen but it would be a waste to give a scholarship to a colored person. Now, that’s 1940 New York City. I am not talking about Alabama, Mississippi, or Georgia. That’s what I was told. Six children and three cousins my parents were raising. There was no way I could go on. I went back to the high school, they were surprised. They knew I was black, I knew I was black. I don’t know what I would have done without them. They said, “Listen, Ashley.” (I graduated in January at sixteen) They said, “Come back and do a post-graduate study and help us with the yearbook and in the summer, you take the exam for the Cooper Union School of Art and Engineering. They do not see you there.” [pause]
I took the exam for the Cooper Union; one exercise in drawing, one in architecture, you brought a bar of plasticine clay, the third was in sculpture. You did those exercises, you put them on the tray, you put the tray on the platform of the Great Hall. The Great Hall of the Cooper Union: every president has lectured there. Founded in 1850 by Peter Cooper for the immigrant families of the city—everything free: the lectures, the plays, the concerts. And that was holy. So, put my tray on the platform and left with my name and all the information.
The next day the professors came down and they selected some for the school. I was fortunate in being one of the selected for the Cooper Union School of Art. And I was the only black in my class. Those students became like family to me. We held on as friends, because it’s in college that you can form friendships that will last for life. I keep telling the students, “Don’t separate yourself. Get to know other students. Form friendships that will be meaningful to you because we all need that support as we go on. The things you’re going to face after college can be so demanding, but when you have other colleagues who are going through the same thing, it encourages you.”
Arree: Yes, yes.
Ashley: And so, I have always said, “don’t be separate.” Alright, so maybe this good or this bad and others have fallen in love or so, but bring them in! Get to know them. Those students at Cooper Union supported me through all the years.
Arree: See that’s some great teachers that helped you find a way.
Ashley: Yes, great teachers.
Arree: And Cooper Union to this day is free tuition.
Ashley: Yes, the sad thing is a few years ago, after the tremendous spite the trustees pushed through a tuition fee. I don’t know what it is. But to have a school knowing what college costs, I was teaching at Dartmouth in New England when I retired and it was sometime like then around $50,000 a year and it’s like $80,000 or $90,000 now. How can a young person wanting to go further afford that kind of cost? So the Cooper Union stood out, it was one of the top ten in the country, always in the fields of art and engineering and it was tuition free.
Arree: Yeah. So, Ashley, tell us, how did you then enlist into the service? Was that before art school or after?
Ashley: Well, I entered Cooper Union at 17 and at 19, I was drafted into the Second World War. Now at Cooper Union, I was painting victory murals with the students. It hadn’t occurred to me about conscientious objection. That was not a thing I knew then. I knew what was happening in the war—the fascist pressures and taking over. So when I was drafted, I was in a segregated army. Right off, you know?
Arree: [00:25:05] And that must have been different for you, ’cause you were living in a diverse neighborhood and then part of a great art culture at Cooper Union.
Ashley: And not only that but unfortunately, white southern officers who had very little respect for us. You know. So yeah, I am always drawing. Listen. I am telling you. I have my sketchpad with me always. So when I was in the army, I kept the sketch pad in my gas mask and when I had a moment, I would take it out and draw when I was not working and the officers would try to stop me. I said, “Oh, put me in the guard house now, for drawing!” Because if I am on my own time I am not going to look busy shuffling boxes because I had been in a port battalion who handled all the supplies to back up an army. Whether it was tanks, trucks, planes, food, clothes, ammunition—stevedores handled that and I was drafted into the 502nd port battalion and that was our work. We were stationed first in Boston, in a schoolhouse, worked the docks of Boston.
Arree: So your art, you had to create, no matter where you were, whether you were in the midst of war—
Arree: Did that help pull you through those dark times? You’re seeing war happening around you, how did art keep you alive?
Ashley: Well I think that’s true of all of us. It is the art that keeps us alive, isn’t it? I live on poetry, the spirituals, the art of the world. That’s at the heart of being human; it’s a desire to approach God. [chuckles] When you’re, from the depths of yourself, because you have no answer and art tries to get you closer to understanding. Who you are, and what is this effort that you are exuding to try to make something of, just to go beyond what is given and to do something more.
And that’s the why I say I live by poetry and by the songs of the spirituals and other arts, of course. But they’re at the heart of everything. I could answer all your questions with a poem from the literature of English American of poetry. I’ve some time, I’ve spent some time in France and some time in Germany because the poetry that I love are in those two countries and learning the poems in the language of the people where you could get the rhythm. Get the song of their languages the one thing you cannot translate. You can translate a meaning and love it but you, the sound, as you say.
Arree: This is a great segue to talking about your publishing career. Ashley Bryan is the first African American author and illustrator in the United States. And so you were creating books before anyone else had discovered you. You were creating books for your own family you were telling me.
Ashley: Yes, family and friends. But you know what’s interesting, that’s what they said of my work. Now, there is wonderful books for young people by black poets and writers, like Langston Hughes and Paul Laurence Dunbar, Countee Cullen. They were not artists in the drawing and painting. When I did my first book of the folktales, the African folktales, not only writing them but illustrating them, they said that. I didn’t know that I never gave it a thought, because generally, people either write or they illustrate.
Now we have, like my friend Jan Spivey Gilchrist sitting up here in the front. She can now both write and illustrate what she does. But that’s unusual. Either you’re a writer or an illustrator and editors will say if you are a writer, do not bring me illustrations of some friend of yours because if I like your text and not the illustrations, what will we do? They always have a whole array, a range of artists they will assign if they would like to use your text. But we do have today, a number of picture book artists who have become writers of some of their books as well. But that’s unusual.
Arree: Which I find, is a natural integration. Because the images go with the words and if you write and illustrate the whole book it just seamlessly comes together.
Ashley: Yeah well it does not the other way because it’s a wonderful thing for another person to interpret what you do.
Arree: There is an editor—
Ashley: Most of the arts are collaborative. Like if you go to see a play, or if you go to an opera, or if you go to a symphony, it takes so many people to create the originality of a person in those enterprises. And also, even though you may do your book, it takes your editor [chuckles] a good editor, to become who you are and that editor can know who you are—that’s why all those writers always moved, if their editors move to another company. They went with their writer.
Arree: Was there an editor that was influential in your life?
Ashley: [00:30:35] Well yes, the reason is because—early on, when I tried to get into the field, there were very few blacks. And for 15 years I did not get in. In 1962, an editor at Atheneum, who had created the Atheneum young people’s section, Jean Carl—she knew someone who had published something with her told her about this man in the Bronx who was always doing his books for family and friends and so she came to my studio. She didn’t ask me to come to the office, she came to my studio. I was showing her my paintings and the things I have done. But I had a table with my picture book art from African folktales, from Aesop’s fables, from Mother Goose and other things. When she left, she sent me a contract to begin work with Atheneum. That was in 1962, that I met her. And in 1965, a person that became a dear friend, Nancy Larrick, was working with black children with picture books, and at one point, a child looked up at her and asked, “Why are they always white?”
Ashley: And she wrote that important essay, the “All-White World of Children’s Books” and that’s what shook up the field. A few years later, a small group of black and white librarians got together. One of them said, I know Coretta Scott King, I’ll ask if we can use her name, we can create our own award because the few blacks in the field have never been recognized. The Caldecott, the Newbery, or any of those awards. They formed the Coretta Scott King Award in 1967, 1968. And they would have a breakfast, fifty people one year, 150 the next, 300 the next. They went on for seven years before the American Library Association took them in. But they did not give up. The Coretta Scott King Award began to recognize blacks who were doing writing and illustrating and first books in the Coretta Scott King Award—which is now a recognized award and is also reviewed in The Horn Book and when the Caldecott and the Newbery are given.
Arree: Which you have won a couple times?
Ashley: Yes. Uh yes. They were quite wonderful in opening up my work to others.
Arree: Absolutely. I want to talk about your beautiful book, [picks up book] Beautiful Blackbird.
Ashley: Beautiful Blackbird! Wow! [chuckles]
Arree: Yes. One of my favorites. So on the end papers, you have scissors. Tell us about the scissors.
Ashley: In my books of collage, I always put on the endpapers my mother’s dress-making scissors and her embroidery crochet scissors. If you open up to the book, all the illustrations in this book are cut with colored papers and pasted in place in the compositions. All are done with these two scissors and I’ve done my book of the spirituals, Let It Shine, and the Langston Hughes Sail Away with collage and you will find on the end papers my mother’s dress-making scissors on the ends of those. Now I was not allowed to play with those as a child. They were special. When my mother died, the family gave me those scissors and now I can play with them all day long. [chuckles] But I loved them, you know. It is very touching because I can feel my mother’s hands in mine when I’m doing these collage books. It brings her very close.
Arree: That’s so beautiful. I think it’s so wonderful. As an artist, I often think about the process in creating artwork and putting yourself in the book as much as possible. So I love that you include that and it’s nice. I think really, it feels very warm.
Ashley: Oh thank you. Good.
Arree: You can tell this comes from a family heirloom. The narrative of the Beautiful Blackbird is about all the other birds singing praise to the blackbird, which is the most beautiful.
Arree: And they actually want to be like him. Right?
Ashley: Yeah, they want to be black. [chuckles]
Arree: So, in the narrative, he ends up giving everyone—
Ashley: Yes, well they all gather together and then Ring Dog says, “My name is Ring Dog but I don’t have a ring around my neck!” So Blackbird swings the ring around his neck. But you see they are so excited about Blackbird, they sing with him—everybody now! “Beak to beak!”
Audience: “Beak to beak!”
Ashley: “Beak to beak!”
Audience: “Beak to beak!”
Ashley: “Peck peck peck!”
Arree Chung and Audience: “Peck peck peck!”
Ashley: “Spread your wings!”
Arree Chung and Audience: “Spread your wings!”
Ashley: “Stretch your neck!”
Arree Chung and Audience: “Stretch your neck!”
Ashley: “Black is beau-ti-ful a ha!”
Arree Chung and Audience: “Black is beau-ti-ful a ha!”
Ashley: “Black is beau-ti-ful a ha!”
Arree Chung and Audience: “Black is beau-ti-ful a ha!”
Ashley: [00:35:50] So I tell the teachers, “When you’re reading a story, you sometimes read straight through, in a story you’re doing. But you have an occasion in stories where you can just stop, say a line and have the children read a line or the audience chime back.” I do that with preschoolers, first graders, with graduate students in universities.
Ashley: You know, it’s important to me to break down that tightness we have. Our fear of being the child. I want to tap the child in everyone in this audience or I don’t get a response. That’s the one thing I’ve always held. I was telling Arree earlier at breakfast that there is a statement that one of the most tragic experiences in life is the death of a child. So never, let the child within you die. The one thing we all have in common is we have survived childhood. And if I can remind you of that experience of adventure and excitement and of trying, of going beyond the formality of who you think you are. I can get a back and forth play.
And so I ask in many of my stories: in taking the voice of the oral tradition in the writing to have occasion where you can have others chant back with you, you don’t have to go all the way through. You will have somewhere you just read straight. But with others, you would like that back and forth play of your audience and you can draw upon that with the way I’ve worked with my African folk tales. Whether it’s that in a beat the drum-pum-pum-pum, the story of the Hausa, I have a hen and frog story where it’s a lot of play in the language because I want to evoke, these languages of the hundreds of African tribes were not written. When scholars in the field wanted to get a written alphabet—many were missionaries or theologians, getting so they could translate the Bible into the language of the hundreds of tribes. They would ask for a story from the Hausa people, like from the story Hen and Frog, I played with the oral tradition.
[In various voices] I told one tale! Here’s another call of your sister! Call your brother. The frog and hen [inaudible]. They walked along together. Hen strut [clap clap]. Two steps a [inaudible] at a book. For the bop. [claps, inaudible] Two steps, a pick at a bug [claps, inaudible]. Frog slapped his legs, and tapped the ground, “All in together now!” clucked Hen. “How’d you like the weather now?” croaked Frog.
So, you see you try to open up a play of voice and you as teachers could have a great time at having them even chant back those words as you’re going along. So that’s why I have a lot of fun with and it means a lot to me to teach that spirit of connecting. We are so separate, you know. I love these conferences. They say faith, but how you strove to understand, we know faith is a leap of some kind. There’s no explanation, if you have any faith in anything, there are no words for that, it’s something that you have made and have, you see. But it’s wonderful to all of you to be at a conference where they’re trying to use the words to find some way of getting to the no words. [laughs]
Arree: I just have a few more questions for you Ashley before we, I wanted to save a little bit of time for you guys to ask Ashley questions as well. So as you can see Ashley is ninety-two and going one ninety-three, right?
Ashley: [00:40:01] In July! [laughs]
Arree: But he is—
Ashley: Deo volente. My mother always said, “God willing” about everything. “I’ll see you tomorrow—God willing!” [laughs]
Arree: I think you all agree with me that Ashley has so much life and vibrancy to him. So what are the secrets in being excited and keeping that childhood curiosity alive?
Ashley: I think a lot of it has to do with the people around me. I am fortunate for having people I care for in the community. Now I’m on this little island of 70 people. The cranberry island off of Acadia National Park. Seventy people: lobster fishermen, carpenters, general workmen, and me. [chuckles] And the reason I can make that home is because I don’t see distinctions of career or professionalism or work in any one! When I used my GI bill abroad in southern France in Aix-en-Provence, I chose Aix-en-Provence not Paris because I wanted to be amongst people doing other things than the arts as well. Although it was a Cézanne country. [speaking French]
But I like other people who are not painting and drawing to see what I am doing and visit me. My door is open. On the island, everything that I can offer as an artist, I have worked with the people of the island. A few years ago, the children of the island, the Islesford Elementary School, which was founded in the late 1800s said, we want the school to be named Ashley Bryan School. So, they put it on the agenda of the town meeting and so when it came up, they had their own advocates were there and a representative ten-year-old at the town meeting to speak up if it wasn’t voted for. But it was overwhelmingly approved so now it’s “Ashley Bryan School” and so it’s really great, the 18 children. They have a great time.
Arree: So connecting to your community is one way of keeping you young?
Ashley: Yes. And as I say, I wake up each morning, on the right side, you get that hip thing at a certain age, you get a new hip, okay? But they suggest at my age that if you don’t need surgery, just use your painkillers and let it go. So I’m fine—I’m getting along fine. But the thing is that you just find the spirit of what you’re doing—anything. Look I try to break down who I am as an artist and you as a painter or you as a carpenter, you as a ditch digger. I try to break that down.
I tell everyone, you cannot resist being creators—transformers. You are dealing with material that you must do something with, to make it other than what it is. When people think, as artist, I take a blank surface and I start painting images on it. I’m transforming a blank surface. But I tell my friend when she’s talking with me, I say, “Look. You have potatoes and meat and vegetable and if you don’t do something to transform those, you don’t have a dinner. You can’t avoid transforming the material. Anything you do and making it something.”
For you to walk into this room, you have to transform a distance, the space you walk. The act of making something or getting somewhere else with what you have in hand is universal. You can give it all kinds of names, but that’s the essence of who we are. That universality of transforming whatever is at hand. I am saying words and Arree is saying words. If you’re not transforming them in some form of understanding, on your own terms. No two of you are doing the same thing. That effort, that desire to make it so that it means something to you, is personal and original.
Arree: And you’re still making work…
Arree: Puppets and books?
Ashley: Yes, well, that will never end.
Ashley: No. I am fortunate in having hand, head, heart, and so when I get up in the morning and start my work, I will say I am going to paint the dahlias in the garden in the summer, or I’ll be out painting the hollyhocks. I have painted them five, six canvases so far, I’m on my seventh canvas. “Ashley, you have never painted a hollyhock. You have never painted a dahlia.” This is a new experience of adventure and discovery, this one. Yes, your biography will travel with you and become a part of it, you see. But you don’t want to do what you know. I don’t want it to do what I have learned of painting that dahlia in itself again. I want, even though—
Arree: [00:45:26] You’re always challenging yourself.
Ashley: In painting the flower I want a wholly new world of adventure and in anything you do; you’re cooking dinner, it’s a new adventure. Make it that. That’s the way the child looks at the world. Everything is a new adventure, and an exploration, and a transformation. Give them a beautiful big present and what are they doing? They are playing with the big cardboard box! [chuckles]
Arree: [chuckles] Thank you so much, Ashley! Let’s open it up to the audience. Do you guys have questions? Raise your hand. Over here?
Lisa: Hey, Lisa here. We had a couple questions from the audience, but they weren’t miked, so I’m going to repeat them for you here. The first person asked Ashley about the puppets that he creates out of found objects, including driftwood.
Ashley: Ah, the puppets. Ashley Bryan’s puppets. Well that’s from walking the shores, well as a child in New York City, my sister and I used to take cast off things in the garbage in the street and we would also go to the commercial street and get those books of fabrics of the interior decorators use and then I would do designs, my sister would make quilts, dresses, and I would make other things for our puppets and all. But we were always working with cast-off things that people had no use for.
When I walk the shore, other people walk the shore—you can’t resist picking up a shell, driftwood, a bone, things like that. Well I’ve picked them up and when I take them and use them in the part of the puppets, to me—to bring to life what is considered unimportant—not useful, not meaningful. When these puppets have been exhibited in museums across the country they always say (even if it’s an exhibit of puppets of other peoples’ as well), people stand before my puppets and make the most comments of why they know them. They know bones, they know driftwood, they know shells, they know these things that have been picked up. But now they’ve see them offered to them in another life meaning. Yes. Thank you.
Arree: Ashley is always creating.
Ashley: She’s a good friend.
Arree: Yes. [laughter] More questions? Anyone else?
Lisa: The next person asked Ashley: What was it like to fight in Germany in the army during World War Two given that he worshipped with so many Germans in his congregation in New York City?
Ashley: Yeah. You see, I went back after the war, I had a Fulbright scholarship to study with, I chose Germany. I wanted to see if I could work off of the close friendships of my friends and family in New York City in the Bronx, with what I experienced is because we were in the Normandy invasion. We had hundreds of ships lined up with all, you see it was the amphibious duck which was a surprise weapon. You could load food and ammunition into a boat and it would become a truck on land. And so Normandy Beach was not expected to be a beach where you could get that kind of material across. Was the source of backing up the allies when they got a foothold. After those 4–5,000 men were slain getting that foothold, they sent of course the next day black quartermasters to clear the shore to see what they could demise. The third day we go ashore, having unloaded our ship and we dig foxholes, hoping not to dig into an undiscovered mine, which would happen.
The lieutenant commander of our battalion who, when we were in Glasgow before leaving. I went to him because my company officers would not give me permission to attend the Glasgow School of Art. And I knew about that school of art because of its incredible architecture and I wanted to go. My company commander said no. So I went over their heads to the battalion commander, and that lieutenant colonel Pierce gave me permission. So when we’d come back from ten hours of work looking forward to going to the city, they said, you are restricted, you cannot go out. We were continually restricted. I was dressed to go, and the fellows supported me because they saw that I was putting something over on those officers and they always respected my art, which I used for them at times. I was so inept at handling cargo and stuff they pushed me aside and said “You go ahead and draw!”
Ashley: [00:50:23] because I couldn’t get with their rhythm. But at any rate, this lieutenant unfortunately stepped on a mine and had to be removed. We would be on that shore June, July, August, September—until the storms closed that port down and could no longer be used. But for those months, from our foxholes, every day that line up of hundreds Liberty ships would come and day after day being unloaded because Le Havre and Marseilles at first were held by the fascists but they never closed that Normandy Beach port.
Arree: So after the war you returned back and studied in Germany.
Ashley: I went to Germany, why? Not only for my friends, I loved the poet writer, Rainer Maria Rilke. I love him in English translations and I wanted to hear the sound in German. There’s a poem that he says, “Was wirst du tun, Gott, wenn ich sterbe? What are you going to do God, when I die? Ich bin dein Krug (wenn ich zersterbe?) I’m your cup when I’m shattered. Ich bin dein Trank (wenn ich verderbe?) I am your drink when I am thirsty. Bin dein Gewand I am your cloak, und dein Gewerbe, and your profession. Nach mir hast du kein. Without me you don’t make any sense.”
I love that kind of challenge to God. “[speaking German, deviates from poem text] Take out my eyes, I can see you. [speaking German] I can still hear you. [speaking German] Without feet I can still go to you, [speaking German] without a mouth, I can witness for you. [speaking German] Break off my arms [speaking German] along with my heart, as it with the head. [speaking German] Toss into my brain the flaming torch, [speaking German] then I will carry you on my blood.” It’s so extraordinary—poetry. What I live by. To stand up … you’re nothing but you’re trying to make some appeal of attention. You know, I am going to hold onto you God no matter what I suffer. It’s extraordinary.
Arree: Ashley? Do you have a poem that we can do together to end with?
Ashley: Well there’s … well, yes. The Langston Hughes, “I Dream a World.”
Arree: Okay, you guys ready?
Ashley: “I dream a world where man no other man will scorn, will love, will bless the earth and peace its paths adorn. I dream a world where all will know sweet freedom’s way. Where cowardice not bless the earth, nor cowardice blights our day. A world I dream where black or white, whatever race you be, will form the union of the earth and every man is free. Where wretchedness will bow its head and joy, like a pearl, attend the needs of all mankind of such I dream our world.” Langston. Thank you all!
Arree: Thank you all for coming!
Lisa: Many thanks to Arree Chung and Ashley Bryan. You can learn more about Arree’s work at arree.com and learn about Ashley’s amazing life story and see his artwork at ashleybryancenter.org. The Ashley Bryan Center was created in 2013 to preserve, celebrate, and share broadly Ashley’s work and his joy of discovery, invention, learning, and community. They are doing great work, check it out!
Rewrite Radio is recorded at the Festival of Faith & Writing on the campus of Calvin College, and produced by the Calvin Center for Faith & Writing. Our team includes Sarah Bass, Jon Brown, Sadie Burgher, Donald Hettinga, Lew Klatt, Scott Hoezee, Jennifer Holberg, Bob Hudson, Anneke Kapteyn, Carolyn Muyskens, Deb Reinstra, Sarah Turnage, Debbie Visser, and Jane Zwart.
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Thanks for listening to Rewrite Radio. I’m Lisa Ann Cockrel, back soon with more from the Festival of Faith & Writing.