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Wagging the Tale Right Off the Page

By Lonnae O'Neal Parker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 21, 1998

  Style Showcase

    Ashley Bryan Illustrator and storyteller Ashley Bryan at Montpelier Cultural Arts Center. "I don't just read the words, I try to roll them up to heaven." (By Dudley M. Brooks/The Washington Post)
It takes a few minutes for the senses to fully catch up with artist Ashley Bryan. Snap, snap, tap, tap, "Heeaaaaaavon is the place where HAPPINESS is eve-ry-wheah!," he singsongs from a poem by Langston Hughes. He gestures wide, raps an open book and, you know man, snap-snap, feels a beat, tap-tap.

Before an audience of about three dozen at the Montpelier Cultural Arts Center in Laurel, the children's illustrator is giving what has been billed as a "book talk." But Bryan doesn't talk, he spins stories. And recites poems. He doesn't just recite them, he performs with deep rumbles, grand trills and a ba-doom-boom, scatman's rhythm.

"I don't just read the words, I try to roll them up to Heaven," Bryan says.

The tall, cocoa-colored artist with mostly white steel-wool hair that cries out for a dab of pomade has been called a Renaissance man. Because he doesn't just roll words. The walls of Montpelier's main gallery are framed with his paintings; vibrant oils in riotous colors with names like "Arc of the Sun" and "A Gathering of Poppies."

But the 74-year-old poet, painter, illustrator, storyteller and author says, "I don't like to categorize, you see. A person is involved in so many different things, and they flow, they move one into another."

As Bryan performs, he moves constantly, stirring the air in front of him, and stirring up those around him. It is the kind of energy he says he needs to bring his work alive. And it makes sense. Because for Ashley Bryan, art is life. When the artist is still, in moments of reflection, he grows older. But as he engages with an individual or an entire audience, he seems invigorated, feeding off their energy like some otherworldly creature.

As Montpelier's national visiting artist through the end of the month, he's keeping a hectic schedule, signing books of his illustrations and poems in between interviews, luncheons, storytellings and receptions. Today Bryan will be at Montpelier working on his next project, illustrations for a book of African proverbs, and answering questions during a two-hour open studio session.

Cultural themes permeate his work and he often admonishes his audiences, "Be strongly rooted in who you are – your people and what they have had to offer, then reach out and draw upon the gifts of other peoples of the world."

According to Montpelier Director Richard Zandler, he brings alive part of the creativity and imagination that have helped shape American culture. "We have an obligation to promote the work of great American artists like Ashley Bryan and I also think our institution exists to be open and welcoming to the entire population of Prince George's County. . . . He instills a sense of direction."

Bryan has a remarkable gift for drawing others in, Zandler says. "The fact that the written word and the spoken word are connected so beautifully by him, and the vitality that can be realized through poetry, is something that he immediately connects to children. They are absolutely mesmerized by the meter and emotion. And they understand the immediate power of the written word."

Six-year-old Connor Ford is a convert. During the Thursday book talk, he laughs and claps, eagerly getting caught up in the rhythm and intonation as he repeats after Bryan:

Went to the corner
Walked in the store
Bought me some candy
Ain't got it no more,
ain't got it no more
  — From "Things," by Washington poet Eloise Greenfield

"I never read to my kids that way," his mother, Heather Ford, says later, wishing aloud that she had Bryan on cassette. "It brings out a lot more of the spirit and feeling."

Though Bryan has memorized most of the poems he performs, he always has a book in his hands when he's in front of an audience to emphasize the connection between books and the written word. Sometimes he'll hold up one of his works and he'll thunder "written by . . . " pointing to himself excitedly.

"ASHLEY BRYAN," the audience yells back. If they know his name, Bryan says, students can ask for him specifically instead of telling a librarian, "I'm looking for a book by that man who was at my school."

Bryan, who grew up in the Bronx and now lives on a tiny island off the coast of Maine, boasts that he wrote and illustrated his first book in kindergarten, a book of ABCs. He says in the 30 years he's been writing and illustrating children's books, he's seen enormous change.

The industry had to respond to "the pressure and demands to bring other people who represent the United States into books so that all children would see what makes up our country," he says. He credits the annual Coretta Scott King Award, established in the late 1960s to recognize black authors and illustrators of children's books, with helping foster change. His book "Beat the Story-Drum, Pum-Pum" won the award for illustration. "It has encouraged publishers to bring blacks into the field," he says. "As a result of that, you have Native Americans, Japanese, Chinese, people from India, people from Korea, all being drawn into the field of representing their people in books for young people written for all people."

"Does anybody know any Negro spirituals?" he asks the audience at a storytelling Friday, and no one raises a hand. "Negro, black, African American, slavery," he persists, and still no hands. "Now," he says, "how many of you know 'When the Saints Go Marching In' or 'He's Got the Whole World in His Hands'? he asks in song, and hands spring up. Then taking out a flutelike recorder, he plays the lullaby "All Night, All Day," from his illustrated book "All Night, All Day: A Child's First Book of African American Spirituals."

The main gallery is packed with students, three classes of fourth graders from nearby Montpelier Elementary and a special needs class from Parkdale High School in Riverdale. Their wide eyes follow him as they hang on his hushed tones.

Bryan points to the Negro spiritual as an artistic gift but also as a metaphor for the need to persevere in the face of challenges.

Although he went on to graduate from Cooper Union Art School in New York, earn a philosophy degree from Columbia University, win a Fulbright scholarship and chair the Dartmouth University art department, he says he was initially told it would be a waste to give an art scholarship to a colored man. "Is that going to stop me?" he remembers thinking. "Did my Lord deliver Daniel, and why not every man?" he says, reciting the words to a spiritual. "No matter what you're going through, there's some way of getting through. It's the spirit of [the art]. It's not literal," Bryan says.

At a reception Friday, Bryan is swaying to the jazzy notes of pianist Charles Covington. Hundreds of well-wishers view his paintings while others wait in line for a chance to meet him or have him sign "Ashley Bryan's ABC of African American Poetry" or "Beat the Story-Drum, Pum-Pum." Bryan, tapping his feet, soaks it all in.

"When I'm doing a painting," he says, "I'm drawing upon the rhythm of a landscape. If I'm reading a poem, there is an essential flow of rhythm that is going to carry that poem. I have to give each work the energy that it needs to bring it alive, you see."

Art, energy, rhythm, life. Standing in front of Ashley Bryan, for a split second, you really do see.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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