The colorful collages and preliminary drawings that Ashley Bryan made for Sail Away, an illustrated children’s book of Langston Hughes poems about water, were acquired by the Morgan Library & Museum in New York. Donated by the Ashley Bryan Center, which is dedicated to preserving and promoting the 97-year-old artist’s oeuvre, this is the Morgan’s first major acquisition of work by a Black children’s author and illustrator.
Bryan, who works with painting, printmaking, puppetry, stained glass, and collage, was born in Harlem in 1923 and grew up in the Bronx during the Great Depression. He studied art at Cooper Union which, unlike other institutions that rejected applicants on the basis of race, made admissions decisions based solely on applicants’ portfolios. After being drafted into the war, Bryan studied at Columbia University on the GI Bill; joined the inaugural class at Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture; received a Fulbright scholarship; and taught art at various institutions including Dartmouth College before retiring in the 1980s. For decades, he has lived in a small island town — accessible by mail boat — off the coast of Maine.
Since 1967, Bryan has published more than 50 illustrated children’s books with an emphasis on African and Black diasporic culture and representation. Among Bryan’s titles are A Child’s First Book of African-American Spirituals (1991) and Beautiful Blackbird (2003), the latter of which the Ashley Bryan Center distributes to schools and libraries in underserved communities in Maine, New York City, Atlanta, and Philadelphia.
“He had discovered a hole in children’s literature,” wrote his editor Caitlyn Dlouhy in the Horn Book Magazine. “There were no introductory books of African American spirituals. There were no stories from the African oral tradition. The translations he found were academic. Dust in the throat.”
Sail Away, which was published in 2015 by Simon & Schuster, collates 15 of Langston Hughes’s poems about seas, sailing, and rivers, including one of the Harlem Renaissance icon’s first and most famous poems, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” (1921). (Hughes, who loved the water, titled his 1940 autobiography The Big Sea.) Bryan selected the poems, zeroing in on examples that children might find accessible or relatable. Each poem is accompanied by Bryan’s cut-paper collage illustrations, which portray aquatic imagery in a panoply of bright colors and bold, rhythmic forms. The handmade book mock-ups included in the acquisition provide insight into the artist’s creative process as he fleshed out his illustrations.
In an interview, Bryan mused on the central place of water in his own life: “Very often, when I’m crossing back and forth from my island to the mainland, I’m looking at the surface of the ocean. And I’ll just be thinking of the Middle Passage, what the depths of that very still surface of the water has meant to my people, crossing from Africa to our hemisphere, the New World,” he said. “The sea is mysterious. It’s beautiful and people like it. But that wide, deep depth is also very holding.”
The acquisition will be on view at the Morgan in the fall of 2022 in an exhibition exploring the place of oceans and rivers in both Hughes’s and Bryan’s celebrated oeuvres.
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How wonderful for the Morgan Library and for New York. Ashley Bryan qualifies as a national treasure. His efforts to retrieve and make new through his own art important Black American voices over the course of a long, passionate and creative life is nothing short of miraculous. I hope the Morgan Library will record him reading some of Hughes’ poems–and his own. He brings poetry alive as only someone who has lived it for so long and so well might give voice to.
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