“A Visit with Ashley Bryan” — on display at the College of the Atlantic’s Ethel H. Blum Gallery through February — is getting rave reviews from fans and visitors.

Ashley Bryan Center CEO Henry Isaacs wrote to COA to let the community know he and Bryan had sorted mail over dinner one night that referenced the artist’s on-campus presentation in October.

COA Professor in the Arts Dru Colbert —  who helped organize, design and curate the exhibit — and another COA faculty member, had delivered dozens and dozens of cards, letters, poems, artwork, and music to Bryan the previous day.

Isaacs reported students and instructors had loaded Colbert up with outpourings of thanks created in extremely personal and creative fashion.

“Most were handwritten, not typed. Most were letters written out of a profound relief that they had found Ashley, that Ashley affirmed something quite deep in each one,” Isaacs reported. “Most contained or consisted of art of one sort or another.”

Many referenced the quote by Ashley in the exhibition, “..to keep alive the child within.”

Others referenced Ashley’s urging the audience to “...never give up.”

Many described their affinity to Ashley as a quality of emotion that they had never before experienced. Many stated that he underscored their reasons to be at COA, whether as students or staff.

A number of people wrote that this was the first letter that they had written to anyone in a very long time.

More than one described Ashley, as  “..a true Human Ecologist..” One signed her letter as, “…the blonde woman who ran up on stage to hug you.”

“Clearly this is a love affair,” Isaacs said. “Ashley has never received such an emotional response from an adult population.”

The exhibit — designed and conceptualized with the help of College of the Atlantic students, staff, alumni and faculty — was on display at Acadia National Park’s Islesford Historical Museum this summer. It features work from Bryan’s 80-year career in art, literature and music, and includes paintings, drawings, illustrated books and puppets featured in his newest book of poems.

The exhibit was conceived by a group consisting of  Ashley Bryan Center board members and founders Henry and Donna Isaacs, Dan and Cynthia Lief, and the artist, as well as exhibition developers Dru Colbert, a College of the Atlantic faculty member; and Betts Swanton ’88, a COA alum.

As the project developed, the group was joined by Ashley Bryan Center project manager Josh Winer ’91, a COA alum and current COA lecturer; and local Islesford resident and craftsman Courtney Chaplin. COA staff and faculty worked with the Ashley Bryan Center team to re-install the exhibit in time for the 20th International Conference of the Society for Human Ecology this fall.

Bryan, 92, is a renowned artist, children’s book author, and humanitarian who has had libraries and schools named for him from Kenya to California. He was born in New York in 1923, in Harlem; his parents were natives of Antigua. He began painting as a very young child and self-published his first book, an illustrated alphabet, in kindergarten. In a career spanning almost a century, he has illustrated approximately 40 books and focuses on the cultural contributions of black artists, teachers, activists and storytellers.

Two years into his college career, World War II intervened and Bryan was inducted into the Army, participating in the Normandy invasion. He continued to draw throughout his time in Europe.

“Ashley’s personal story of courage, perseverance, and dedication is presented in a timeline that includes seldom-seen work from the artist’s years serving in the segregated U.S. Army in World War II,” according to a description of the exhibit.

COA students visiting Bryan’s Islesford home during the fall term found a space filled with creative wonder … walls mostly hidden with shelves, and shelves populated with a fantastic array of toys, gadgets, and artifacts.

As he passed around items from his collection of international push-pull toys, Bryan encouraged students to learn how things work and how to make things. “You can make things,” he said. “You don’t have to buy them.”

For more about Bryan’s unique biography, click here. For a news report on the Ashley Bryan exhibit from WABI-TV, click here.

The exhibit is on display at College of the Atlantic’s Ethel H. Blum Gallery through February. It is free and open to the public from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday-Saturday, except for observed holidays and from 4 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 23 through 11 a.m. Monday, Jan. 5.


College of the Atlantic was founded in 1969 on the premise that education should go beyond understanding the world as it is, to enabling students to actively shape its future. A leader in experiential education and environmental stewardship, COA has pioneered a distinctive interdisciplinary approach to learning—human ecology—that develops the kinds of creative thinkers and doers needed by all sectors of society in addressing the compelling and growing needs of our world. For more, visit http://www.coa.edu.


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