Author Ashley Bryan comes to the Mariposa Museum

Last modified: 12/10/2012 7:19:45 PM
Ashley Bryan spent four years carefully carving depictions of scenes inspired from a selection of his African American spirituals into thick sheets of linoleum , carving piece by piece until he was satisfied the picture he created is as perfect as he could make it. It’s a laborious process, but for Bryan it’s a labor of love, aimed at glorifying God and putting the images of his heritage into the hands of children.

The Mariposa Museum in Peterborough is currently celebrating Bryan’s illustrations with a display of prints from two of his selections of spirituals, “Walk Together Children” and “I’m Going to Sing,” in an exhibit titled “My Lord, What a Morning: Woodcut prints of Black American Spirituals by Ashley Bryan.”

Bryan, the first African American to both write and illustrate a children’s book, was first published in 1962. Growing up in Harlem in the 1920s and ’30s, Bryan started his career as an artist, studying at the Union Cooper Art School in New York City until he was drafted to serve in World War II at the age of 19. After the war, he went back to school, studying philosophy at Columbia University. It wasn’t until later in his life that he tried his hand at writing a children’s book. By that time, he was already in his 40s.

Since then, he has written and illustrated more than 20 books for children. Several of his children’s books have been honored with the Corretta Scott King Award, awarded to outstanding African American authors, and was awarded the 2009 Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal for his substantial contribution to children’s literature.

Now at 89, he’s still writing and illustrating, and he’ll be bringing to life to his latest book, “Who Built the Stable,” and other poetry in a reading at the Mariposa Museum on Tuesday, accompanied by a concert by the Boston-based Gospel group The Bullock Brothers.

Bryan’s work fits with the theme of social change in America, which the Mariposa began exploring in its previous exhibit featuring the songs and artwork of Woody Guthrie, said Mariposa’s Executive Director Karla Hostetler.

“We’re looking at art and culture and social change in an American context this year,” Hostetler said in an interview at the Mariposa on Friday. “We thought there would be synergy between Ashley and his work in the last 90 years, and what the Mariposa is about: art and social change, and understanding different cultures though art and performance.”

Bryan chose his medium for the illustrations of his selected spirituals specifically to parallel medieval-style block printing. They reflect a time in history when all art was produced to glorify God — everything from the ritual dramas to illuminated manuscripts and the architecture that went into building magnificent churches. In Bryan’s view, African spirituals are another art form created solely to honor God.

“Once I made that connection, I didn’t care how much time it would take, I wanted that spirit of that art that came from American slaves,” said Bryan on Monday in a phone interview with the Ledger-Transcript from his home on Little Cranberry Island in Maine.

Bryan first published the “Walk Together Children” and “I’m Going to Sing,” meant to be a continuation of each other, in 1974 and 1982. Both books were republished this year by Alazar Press. The majority of Bryan’s books are published for children, but he said adults will be able to get as much from the spirituals as children.

Bryan made his books accessible to children because he has a passion for educating people about where spirituals come from, he said. Everyone knows some African spirituals, but they’re often unaware of the history behind them.

“Whenever I ask children, ‘Does anyone know a spiritual,’ no hand goes up. But if I start, ‘He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,’ they sing me down. If I say, ‘When the Saints Go Marching,’ they join in. And they’re shocked when I tell them those are African spirituals,” Bryan said. “We are taught the songs in the United States, but they are not taught historically.”

The Mariposa is proposing to change that with this exhibit.

“We’re sharing with children that these songs they hear all the time came out of a time of oppression and hardship and suffering, and it was a way to bring hope through singing,” Hostetler said. “They could have become despairing, but they chose to create something really inspiring and beautiful, and the result is this unique American art form that was created really to glorify God.”

When Bryan first began publishing books in the 1962, it was especially important to make these books accessible to children, he said. There were very few books that showcased spirituals at that time, and those that were available were meant for adults.

The Mariposa will feature Bryan’s works through Jan. 31. Bryan read from “Who Built the Stable” and a selection of other poetry on Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. at the Mariposa Museum, followed by a selection of live Gospel music performed by The Bullock Brothers. Tickets are $20 for adults, $8 for children. Children accompanying museum members will be admitted for free.

Ashley Saari can be reached at 924-7172 ext. 235 or She’s on Twitter at @AshleySaari.


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