At 90, Ashley Bryan is as full of energy as the groups of schoolchildren who throng through his studio. For his collections of African folktales and his original stories, he has won the Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal (2009), several Coretta Scott King Honors, and, in 2012, the Coretta Scott King–Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement. Ashley Bryan’s Puppets: Making Something from Everything (S&S/Atheneum, July) spotlights the creations he makes from pieces of driftwood, shells, and castoff objects scavenged from the beaches of Little Cranberry Island, the small island off the coast of Maine that he calls home. His devotion to the island is returned by the community; the local school is named after him. Bryan spoke with PW by phone about making puppets, island life, and the secret to hosting many visitors while still finding time to paint.
The puppets in the book are real, moving puppets that you’ve performed plays with, right?
Yes, initially. I wanted to show that with imagination, the castoff items we see on the beach can be brought to life, and I used African folk tales to get that across. We had two people handling the puppets, plus one to take the puppets on and off, another to do the lighting, another the music, and I told the story. But I’m more a puppetmaker than a puppeteer.
How did you first start making them?
In New York City during the Depression, my sister and I would walk through the streets and pick up castoff objects and make puppets out of them. We’d get books of fabric samples from interior designers and make dresses and quilts for them. We were always transforming what other people disregarded and considered useless – we were excited by giving them new life. The beach here is just the same! I put two mussel shells together and saw an African mask.
I’ve heard that in your puppet plays, you always made the ugly characters the heroes and the beautiful characters the villains.
We are what we do, not how we look. With the puppets I was able to get that message across without knocking the audience over the head with it. A puppet might have a frightening look, but as it acts virtuously, it becomes what it does. In life, we are what we are doing, how we relate to others.
How did you come to the idea of writing a poem for each puppet?
Caitlyn Dlouhy, my editor at Atheneum, said, “Ashley, it’s wonderful to see how every puppet tilts its head at a slightly different angle. If you give readers some words that relate to the puppets, they’ll study them for longer before they turn the page.” I developed them by following the African names of the puppets and what each puppet was made of. Over a period of about eight months, I spent days studying each puppet and getting the voice and the spirit right. It meant the world to me.
Has Caitlyn been your editor all along?
Well, my first editor was Jean Karl. I was unable to get into the field at all at first. Then Jean heard about this man in the Bronx who made handmade books for his family and friends. She came to my studio and immediately said, “I’ve seen your work with African tales. I would like to know – what is your next book?” That’s what she always said. She said, “I do not care if it takes you three or four years: What is your next book?” With my teaching full-time and my sister’s family, my hands were full, but Jean always had me working.
Caitlyn’s done all my books since Jean died [in 2000]. She’s been so perceptive and helpful with every book that I’ve done. She’s always focusing on the details – that’s her artistry as an editor. In each of the poems she would find something or make a suggestion about a line. She can say something like, “You are really doing two stories here; maybe you could work with that part another time.” And then I can go back and sharpen the focus. Writing is not like doing a painting. It’s an ensemble.
You spend a lot of time going to schools, and having children come to your studio.
That’s the point of what I do. When I see the art and the African folktales the children have written, I see how children’s creative sources are tapped. What you do inspires the life of others; it’s not just exhibiting it yourself. How does it tap the onlooker to see something about their own life? They can see it and they can ask themselves, “What do I do well? What can I do that I can share and offer?”
It’s funny how the children pick up on things. When I make a mistake I always tell them, “I make flowers of all my mistakes.” I turn those misspellings into flowers. The children have picked that up. I saw a little boy in a classroom and he said, “I’m doing like Mr. Ashley! I’m making flowers of my mistakes.”
Visitors sometimes get worried about my spending so much time with them. They ask, “When can you do your paintings?” “I am painting now!” I tell them. I never stop. I’m observing them and looking at them. I’m seeing the color of their clothes, the objects in my room around them. Who knows what will happen when I pick up the brush when they’re gone?
How did you first find Little Cranberry Island?
When I came back from World War II, I had fought in a segregated army in which racism was rampant. It was difficult to hold on to your ideals once you were in. 1946 was the first year of the Skowhegan art school. I had been a student at Cooper Union before the war, and the school awarded me a scholarship to paint in Maine. You can imagine how that was: the dreadful experiences of war, being spun around, coming home to New York, then being granted the opportunity to paint on a lake near Colby College – it was so beautiful! We often went to Acadia, and from those hills and mountains, you could see this splay of islands. We asked the Maine students, “Can we go there?”
And once I went, I knew I would go back. When I got off the boat, somebody reached for my luggage, and it was handed to the next person, and they handed it on to the next person until it reached the dock. I felt immediately at home. It was just like the tenement in which I was raised in Harlem. If we can create community, we can be at the heart of the mystery of being. The island is a community in that sense. There is concern and help for everyone, and a recognition that whether you’re a fisherman, a cook, a carpenter, a mother, it doesn’t matter – it’s what you have to give.
My family and friends have raised the money for an exhibition of my work at Acadia National Park this summer, and they’ve applied for grant funds for a center, a building, so that the puppets and the sea glass windows I’ve made can stay here on the island – so that what is from the heart of the island can remain here.
Ashley Bryan’s Puppets: Making Something from Everything by Ashley Bryan, photos by Ken Hannon. Atheneum, $17.99 (July) ISBN 978-1-4424-8728-4