'Time will come and take my love away' ... a visit with Ashley Bryan

This weekend I was privileged to visit Ashley Bryan's house and studio on Cranberry Island, Maine.

How it came about is as follows ...

Back at the summer SCBWI conference in 2010, in LA, Ashley received the Golden Kite for his book 'Words to my Life's Song'. (Which I recommend you read if you haven't already). I was lucky enough to sit next to him during a keynote session and we had a good chat. I told him I lived in Maine and he invited me to his house on Cranberry Island to visit.

When I got home I printed out a photo of Ashley at the conference in LA during his keynote closing session - I stuck it next to my computer screen and I see it daily and hear his voice 'COURAGE!'

Then, earlier this summer, I met author/illustrator Stephen Costanza at a book signing and found that Ashley had been one of his early mentors. Although they had met many times, Steve had never visited Ashley ... so we decided it was time! Steve called Ashley and arranged the visit. On a blustery, grey day, we set off for Acadia State Park to catch the ferry to Cranberry Island.
Here we are - 2 very excited creators!

I say 'ferry' but in actuality it was just a little mail boat. Luckily neither of us suffer from sea sickness! The waves tossed the boat around mercilessly. It was loaded with supplies for the islanders (much beer and cider I noted), folks with dogs going about their every day business, tourists out for a breezy day and - we two looking forward to a visit of a lifetime.

The ferry called at a couple of little stops on the way. We scrambled ashore at our stop and hopped up on the dockside. Waiting for us was a lovely lady called Suzy ready to take us the short drive to Ashley's house. Suzy is quite a character and apart from helping Ashley with many administrative jobs and picking up his visitors, she creates wonderful soft bear sculptures and runs the island shop! She gave us an insight into island life and the kind of person who lives there year round. It's not for the faint hearted - and her advice - don't come to live on an island too early.

Ashley met us at his door. A typical island clapboard house surrounded by trees on a quiet street. His smile and energy enveloped us as soon as we got out of the car. I will try to give you an idea of what it is like to enter Ashley Bryan's house and world, but it's not easy.

Imagine what it was like for the lucky winners entering the world of Willy Wonka and you will have some inkling. From the road you can see that even the windows are crammed with exciting and wondrous things - toys - shells - bottles -  glass - who knows what! And - then you enter.

First a porch filled with toys that children who visit are welcome to play with and have a good time. But once inside - a museum - an imaginarium -  you find a man's creative mind turned inside out. A man who loves children and play and creation and craft and the whole physical world of artisan and artistry. You could look for days and weeks and years and still not see it all.

At first you are so consumed by the wealth of beauty around you that your eyes cannot rest and are darting from ceiling, to floor, to shelf, to table. But then there is Ashley and he is brighter and more interesting than anything else in his house! This power-house of creativity, humanity and love sat us down at his dining table and busied himself making tea in a black china pot, whilst urging us to nibble on the cheeses and crackers and dainties he had set out on the table for us.

Then followed a wonderful afternoon of exchange of ideas, thoughts and laughter, interspersed with forays around the beautiful rooms to view Ashley's collections and artwork. Both Steve and I were captivated by his incredible hand puppets, made from found objects mostly given up from the sea and collected on his beach walks. 

This is but a small selection. The puppets live in one of Ashley's several extensions to his little house ... along with his sea glass stained window working area. And what a surprise that is! But more on that in a moment. The puppets grew to be a large collection and at one time Ashley told us that he would put on quite large shows involving several people. I do so wish I could have seen one of them!

Ashley also collects (and makes) marionettes. A sampling of those ....

Back to the sea-glass stained glass. You all know what sea glass is, right? Those odds and ends of glass bottles and containers rumbled and tumbled by the sea until they become treasure? Well, here is what Ashley makes with them:

Beautiful aren't they? As soon as I saw them I was transported back in time to York Minster in England (where I went to art college.) I would spend hours gazing at the Rose Window. And this is exactly the effect Ashley was looking for. Medieval windows, before they got too fancy and were about shape and colour and not so much of the painting. Both Steve and I were stunned. Ashley explained his process which can take a long time. Years on some of the large panels. The 'leading' is actually papier-mache, that is applied to both sides of the glass, in a frame, and when hardened he paints it over with black acrylic. Because, by nature, the glass is thick and mis-shapen the windows are very thick. No cutting is involved, as with stained glass. The perfect pieces of glass are needing to fit the windows, with the papier-mache giving form. I hope you can grasp some of the beauty here ... you can imagine the effect on a grey, November day.

During the afternoon, after more nibbles and talk, Ashley told us something of his philosophy of life. As an artist and as a human being. Much of this is set down in his biography - see above. All I can tell you is that this man has a great love for the earth and it's inhabitants. For humanity as a whole, expressed in his interest in native crafts and the themes that link the makers of beautiful things together unwittingly. To Ashley, everyone is an artist. Artists are not a race apart, or special. To appreciate is as much of an artistic offering as it is to create. Perhaps this is the thought I have taken away with me. A reminder that what ever I do in my humble way I am asking the viewer, or reader, to partake and evolve my thoughts.

Some of you will know and have heard the wonderful reading style of Ashley. If not ... here is a link .... - I encourage you to search for more of the links on Youtube for Ashley.

Somehow Ashley began to talk about the events of 9/11 (I think because we were talking about 11/11/11, the date we visited) and began to recite a sonnet by Shakespeare -


When I have seen by Time's fell hand defaced
The rich proud cost of outworn buried age;
When sometime lofty towers I see down-razed,
And brass eternal slave to mortal rage;
When I have seen the hungry ocean gain
Advantage on the kingdom of the shore,
And the firm soil win of the watery main,
Increasing store with loss, and loss with store;
When I have seen such interchange of state,
Or state itself confounded to decay;
Ruin hath taught me thus to ruminate
That Time will come and take my love away.
   This thought is as a death which cannot choose
   But weep to have that which it fears to lose.

I can only give you the words here and not the sense. Not the feeling of sitting in the peaceful surroundings of Ashley's Imaginarium and have his deep, soulful voice resonate for just we two. What a gift.

I was also honoured to have Ashley look over some of my work and give me a gentle crit. I know what I have to do ....

And I have not even touched on his art, on his books, on his paintings! Our last hour was spent in his studio, a light filled, more workmanlike place at the top of the house. He shared his 100's of sketchbooks and showed us plan chests filled with thousands of drawings and his spreads from his books. Canvas' lining the walls and easels set with  paintings he will work on through the winter. A cornucopia of colourful flowers and trees, more reminiscent of the Caribbean than of an island in Maine. His writing desk, his 'yoga' - hundreds of small watercolours that he works on in his 'leisure' time. He was animated and excited showing us his creations.

Ashley Bryan is 88 now. And still his output of work, his travel schedule, the giving of his time to people and children, his work in Africa ... is tremendous. I could not but help thinking of my own studio, and when I returned it felt empty ... I am determined to produce more and to love what I create. Else, why do it?

All too soon the day had gone. Suzy collected us and put us back on the mailboat with the people and the dogs and the cats in baskets. We sat outside and watched Cranberry Island and that magical house and man disappear into the fog and mist of a late Maine, November evening. The mailboat tossed in the waves, soaking us. But we didn't care. We pulled our waterproofs tighter and reflected on a day that may have been the visit of a lifetime.

Time now extends away from this magical afternoon, and with time comes reflection, but it doesn't have to take the love away.

Thank you Ashley Bryan for giving of your time to us and to all the people and children you have reached out to.