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Film Shows a Former Dartmouth Professor’s Buoyant Spirit

  • 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)

  • Pages from Ashley Bryan's book "Beautiful Blackbird." (The Ashley Bryan Center)

  • 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.



Valley News Staff Writer
Friday, October 20, 2017

At 94, the artist and children’s book illustrator Ashley Bryan, who experienced discrimination both in the art world and the segregated Army during World War II, could be forgiven for feeling weighed down by a world that persists in dividing people by color, class and gender.

But an hour-long documentary about Bryan’s life, I Know a Man ... Ashley Bryan, directed by Richard Kane and Robert Shetterly, shows the opposite to be true. Rather than harboring deep pessimism, Bryan insists on optimism and generosity, and persuades others to feel the same largeness of spirit.

The film will screen Wednesday from 4:30 to 6 p.m. in Room 003 of Rockefeller Center at Dartmouth College, where Bryan began teaching in 1974 in the nascent studio art program.

The screening is free and open to the public, and is sponsored by the college’s office of Institutional Diversity and Equity. Richard Kane, the film’s co-director, will attend and participate in a post-screening discussion.

“We thought at the beginning this was a film about an artist and of course it is, but it’s so much more. Ashley is a great humanitarian. It’s a film about one man’s love of humanity,” Kane said in a phone interview from Maine, where he lives and works.

Kane has directed a number of films about Maine’s large contingent of artists in the series Maine Masters. Bryan also lives in Maine, on the Cranberry Isles near Acadia National Park.

Born in New York City to Antiguan parents in 1923, Bryan showed an early gift for art. But after high school he was rejected by college art programs because he was African-American. It wasn’t until he applied to the famous Cooper Union art school in lower Manhattan, which admitted students solely on the basis of their portfolios, that he was able to pursue art in the way he wished.

The documentary follows Bryan’s life and career through his experience during the war, his return to the U.S., and his completion of his art degree at Cooper Union. In 1946 he was able to attend the famed Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine, which first brought him to the state where he would eventually make his home.

“Like many artists who come to Maine, Ashley fell in love with the beauty of the land, the bucolic and the calm,” said Kane.

Bryan traveled to Europe from the late 1940s through the 1950s to study and make art in France and Spain. He earned a Fulbright to Germany in 1957. He taught art at various schools and colleges in the Northeast before moving to Hanover to teach at Dartmouth until his retirement in 1988.

Bryan’s exuberant, brilliantly colored books for children, which include Beautiful Blackbird, Freedom Over Me: Eleven Slaves, Their Lives and Dreams Brought to Life, and Ashley Bryan’s ABC of African American Poetry, have earned him three Coretta Scott King Awards for Illustration.

He is also the recipient of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award for Lifetime Achievement, the Coretta Scott King - Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement and the Dartmouth College Social Justice Award for Lifetime Achievement, among other honors.

The film, which has been screened at numerous festivals in the U.S., owes its success, said Kane, to Bryan himself, who appears to have a buoyancy that characterizes both his relations with people and his art and writing.

To sum him up, said Kane: “Great personality, great character and great subject.”

I Know a Man ... Ashley Bryanwill screen Wednesday, Oct. 25, from 4:30 to 6 p.m. in Room 003 of Rockefeller Center at Dartmouth College. It is free of charge to the public. For information go to dartmouth.edu/~ide.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.