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Column: A journey from war to peace

  • Maine artist Ashley Bryan, who taught art at Dartmouth College from 1974 to 1988, is the subject of a new film< "I Know a Man ... Ashley Bryan." The film will screen at Dartmouth on Wednesday. (Courtesy photograph)

  • Ashley Bryan, during his years as an art professor at Dartmouth College. Bryan taught at Dartmouth from 1974 to 1988. He has lived in Maine since retiring from Dartmouth.

  • Bill Nichols. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

For the Valley News
Published: 8/8/2020 10:10:18 PM
Modified: 8/8/2020 10:10:16 PM

For those us who believe recent weeks might have brought us a little closer to common ground in our deeply divided country, one piece of evidence might be how quickly George Floyd’s killing led millions of us to begin rethinking centuries of racial injustice in America. This reassessment might be enduring.

Here in the Upper Valley, we might look again at the life and work of Ashley Bryan, an artist who taught at Dartmouth College from 1974 to 1988. Bryan’s recent book, Infinite Hope: A Black Artist’s Journey from World War II to Peace, will be helpful if we do.

At 19, Bryan was drafted into the segregated U.S. Army, and in 1944 his company of Black stevedores participated in the D-Day landing at Omaha Beach in France, where Americans suffered heavy casualties. Over the decades since then, Bryan has seldom spoken of the carnage he saw and the racism he endured. Now 97, he has brought together in Infinite Hope sketches, paintings, photographs, letters and his analysis to reveal how he ultimately salvaged hope, and even joy, from the war and its aftermath.

When Bryan returned to the U.S. after the war he studied philosophy, hoping to answer the question “Why does man choose war?”

He concluded: Only the art he’d loved creating since he was a child would help him find his way to an answer.

Reflecting on how art helped him come to grips with the “mystery of being human” in a world that includes such horror, Bryan thought of a time in 1950 when he went to Prades, France. The cellist Pablo Casals had agreed to break a four-year performing silence he kept to protest dictatorships. As Richard Kane and Robert Shetterly reveal in their beautiful documentary film, I Know a Man ... Ashley Bryan, it was while drawing the musicians rehearsing with Casals in Prades that Bryan learned “how a hand could move with a brush.” (Maine Public Television will broadcast I Know a Man ... Ashley Bryan on Sept. 3 and Sept. 5.)

In addition to painting, Bryan’s art came to include music, poetry, puppetry, audience participation and the use of cast-off materials. All of these, he writes in Infinite Hope, “come from the same inspired source: the rhythm of the hand.”

Teaching at Dartmouth, Bryan encouraged his students to interweave the arts. Jay Mead, a Norwich sculptor who studied with Bryan and also uses cast-off materials, says: “He has a mission about bringing poetry to life. His way was energizing people.”

Marrin Robinson, another former student, remembers Bryan as a professor who has stayed in touch with her for more than 40 years with letters “full of hope and support.” Robinson, an artist and teacher in Arizona, writes: “He always ended his letters with salutations such as one I have from 2018, ‘Be Well! Work Well! Peace and Love, Ashley.’ ”

A ‘share-the-work spirit’

Scenes in Kane and Shetterly’s documentary show Bryan to be a gifted teacher of children. And Joanna Waldman, who taught kindergarten at Thetford Elementary School, remembers the day he came to meet with students there. Within moments, she recalls, they “were all transfixed as he re-told, the famous folktale, Tikki Tikki Tembo.”

Waldman was so moved by his visit, she says, that “for many years I used his books What A Wonderful World, and Ashley Bryan’s ABC of African American Poetry with my youngest students.”

An old friend, Tony Stoneburner, encountered Bryan in 2003 at Plymouth Congregational Church in Minneapolis, where he performed several poems by Langston Hughes, the acclaimed poet of the Harlem Renaissance. Stoneburner recognized a feature of Bryan’s art often associated folk artists. “I liked his share-the-work spirit,” Stoneburner told me. “ ‘Help me make it,’ was his attitude, not simply, listen to what I have made or look at what I have made.” Bryan’s account of the making of Infinite Hope, his latest book, begins this way: “It took an army to create this book, and my gratitude is enormous.” He mentions many examples of very specific contributions made by the people he thanks.

The book includes letters he wrote in his foxhole and sketches of fellow soldiers he stashed in his gas mask until he could mail them back to the United States. There are photos taken by others. He recently turned some of his dark wartime sketches into surprisingly colorful paintings. And he weaves all this together with his contemporary reflections, steeped in the decades of his own long silence about his formative experience of war.

One beautiful result of Bryan’s embrace of communal art is visible in his work with sea glass he and others collected on the shore of Maine’s Little Cranberry Island, which became his summer retreat many years ago and then his home. He developed a method of holding the pieces of glass together with pulp made from newspaper, water and paste, making panels that, held to the light, glow like stained glass. I Know a Man includes moving footage of the people at Islesford Congregational Church on Little Cranberry Island dedicating a series of his glowing glass panels on the life of Jesus.

He now lives temporarily with his niece in Texas, Richard Kane reports, and plans to return to his home on Little Cranberry Island when the pandemic allows.

Bryan is the embodiment of a quiet heroism we are likely to find often if we continue to rethink our history of racial injustice. And his art invites us to imagine alternatives to the grim political landscape of our time, the frightening terrain haunted by energized white supremacy and made treacherous by lies and mistrust.

Ashley Bryan’s art, and his life, illuminate that dark landscape and suggest the transforming power of hope and joy and love.

Bill Nichols lives in West Lebanon. He can be reached at Nichols@Denison.edu.

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