Last month, the world lost one of its most beloved inspirations and artists. Ashley Bryan passed away on February 4 in Texas where he had been living with family during COVID.
For over 30 years, Ashley created his art full-time in Maine. Inspired by his beautiful natural surroundings, Ashley created paper collages and cut linoleum block prints, built hand puppets, and even crafted a series of stained-glass windows using sea glass he found on the beach which he gifted to his island community church. And of course, he illustrated more than 70 books, bringing his stories to life with vibrant colors and imagery. At age 81 he published “Beautiful Blackbird,” a story celebrating community and individuality.
To those who knew Ashley, his energy and creativity was a joy. One of those people lucky enough to be part of Ashley’s dynamic world was Mary Peverada, Portland Public Library’s Youth Services Director. She recently reflected on her time spent with Ashley in this lovely tribute:
“I feel that I need to reflect on the amazing life of Ashley Bryan. He was truly the kindest, most joyful, sweetest, generous person that I ever met. I was privileged to call him a friend. Many of my interactions with Ashley were at storytelling events – and it was an honor to share the stage with him.
Ashley’s sun-soaked studio in Maine was filled with his art, toys, puppets, and more.
Ashley appeared at one of the earliest Lysla Abbott Storytelling Festivals at Portland Public Library. He appeared with Anne Pellowski (another powerhouse teller). Both of them shared their cultures with the audience through story – and the audience loved them! Ashley had everyone – child to adult – reciting poetry and folktales and singing spirituals with spirit, joy and decibels. At his appearances – as author, storyteller, poet and artist, no matter which hat he was wearing, he was a pure delight.
We met up at many library conferences from New Orleans to Chicago to San Francisco and always enjoyed a few moments to chat. I also have some treasured correspondence from Ashley. But my highlight was visiting Ashley at his home on Islesford. It was an amazing day! He gave us a tour of the island, made chowder for our lunch, gave us homemade jam – and shared his delightful home. His shelves were covered with sea glass, puppets, and toys from around the world. His sun-soaked studio was filled with wondrous art as seen in his beautiful books – and puppet creations were coming to life. It was a truly magical day.
Ashley and Mary in Ashley’s Cranberry Island art studio, 1984.
People pass in and out of our lives – and they are all special. However, there is a small number of folks who turn the world on its ear and bring beauty and joy. Ashley was a national treasure. He inspired us all. May we never forget him.
Rest in peace dear friend.”
Youth Services Director
Portland Public Library
The Cat’s Purr, an original drawing by Ashley Bryan hangs in the Children’s Room at the Downtown Library, Portland, Maine.
The cover and one inside page of the 1973 Miss Black Teenage Pageant of Maine that was held in Portland. The pageant was the second held in Maine, following one in 1971, and was sponsored by the Maine Association for Black Progress. Karlene Carter, 16, of Bangor was the winner. The other contestants, pictured on an inside page of the program, were Joni Clark, 15, Hermon; Karen Cummings, 13, Portland; Belinda Dashiell, 16, Auburn; Diana Johnson, 16, Brunswick; Judith Searcy, 15, Gorham; Joyce Young, 16, Portland; and Kathy Young, 15, Portland. From Maine Memory Network
PPL strives to celebrate the history of Black Americans throughout the year. In that spirit of celebration, we have compiled an incomplete list of local and regional events. These events are not affiliated with Portland Public Library. If you have an event that is not listed, please email Raminta Moore, Arts & Culture Librarian Moore@portlib.org
“She Took Justice: The Black Woman, Law, and Power” with Gloria J. Browne-Marshall
Join law professor Gloria J. Browne-Marshall for a virtual lecture “She Took Justice: The Black Woman, Law, and Power.” She Took Justice explores the Black woman’s miraculous journey from Africa to political power brokers in American politics. Learn about the famous, infamous, and forgotten women in history from 1619 to 1969.
Friday, February 18, 2022 • 5:30 pm – 7:30 pm ONLINE
John E. Gaskill, Portland, ca. 1925 Gaskill was admitted to the Maine Baseball Hall of Fame. The Gaskills lived at 24 Montreal St. in Portland. Maine Memory Network photo
Black History Month: How to be a Good Ally
We will talk about the history of Black History Month, modern day relevancy, whitewashing, Black queer media, and how to be a good ally.
Sat, Feb 19, 2022, 9:00 PM ONLINE
An Afro-Caribbean in the Nazi Era: Oral History and the Black Family
How did an Afro-Caribbean civilian merchant sailor become a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp during World War II? What did he witness? How did he survive to tell about it? This presentation answers these questions through the story of Lionel Romney, the presenter’s father, who revealed his wartime experiences in an oral history.
Sat, 19 February 2022 2:00 PM – 4:00 PM ONLINE
Abdi Iftin – Diversifying the Maine Outdoors
Our state of Maine is rich with nature, including gorgeous beaches, mountains, lakes, rivers and hiking and skiing spots. Many Mainers enjoy these activities, but many – including new Mainers, minority groups and disadvantaged communities – lack access to the Maine outdoors. This is due to economic challenges and, in many cases, the lack of information about the ways to access these opportunities. Abdi’s talk will focus on at least three ways we can help create inclusive outdoor activities.
Fri, February 25, 2022 7:00 PM – 8:30 PM EST AT L.L. Bean 95 Main Street, Freeport
Natasha Marin – Curator of Black Imagination
Poet and Conceptual Artist, Natasha Marin in conversation with the Colby community at Greene Block + Studios. Through the spring semester, Marin is working with a cohort of students to collaboratively create an exhibition engaging questions that shape her book, Black Imagination. Natasha will engage with the Colby community during this initial visit, while continuing to work with students to premiere their exhibition in April 2022.
Wed, February 23, 2022 7:00 PM – 8:00 PM EST
Greene Block + Studios 18 Main Street, Waterville
Black History Month Wellness Fair
Cross Cultural Community Services, in partnership with the Community Wellness Fair Planning Committee, is proud to present the second annual The Black History Month Community Wellness Fair! This event is designed to support families as they learn more about available services and general health best practices, to help them reduce stress, to ease the navigation process through the ongoing impacts of COVID, and to determine how we can best support each other during these difficult times. This year, the fair will take place from February 28th- March 3rd, 2022. Due to the ongoing nature of the pandemic, the fair will remain entirely virtual. However, we are very excited to feature many returning special guests as well as a variety of new panels. We are looking forward to making this year’s fair the best one yet! –ONLINE Please follow the link for daily schedules of events.
Mitchell Williams was the winner of the 1927 Portland to Peaks Island swim. Standing behind him is his wife, Florence Eastman Williams, born in Portland in 1892. Mitchell Williams, also a Portland native, was a graduate of Tuskegee Institute. They married in 1912. –Photo from Maine Memory Network
Nineteenth-Century Black Politics in Maine
This panel discussions highlight important new research by Van Gosse (Franklin & Marshall University) whose book, The First Reconstruction: Black Politics in America, From the Revolution to the Civil War (University of North Carolina Press, 2021), includes chapters devoted to the partisan politics of Black Mainers. Panelists Pamela Cummings (President of the Committee to Restore the Abyssinian Meeting House), Mary Freeman (University of Maine), and Bob Greene (Journalist & Independent Scholar) also share their research and insights. ACCESSIBLE ANY TIME
Groundwork | A Celebration of Black History Month Gospel Concert and Event
Rooted Soul Entertainment is delighted to bring you a joyful and peace filled gathering for an evening of Gospel music, comedy, poetry, and dancing to commemorate Black history in the United States. As we acknowledge and honor our ancestral forerunners, we welcome you into a sacred celebratory space to unite us one to another.
Thursday, February 24, 2022 6:00PM Merrill Auditorium, Portland
Cotton Town: Maine’s Economic Connections to Slavery
Maine Maritime Museum and Bowdoin College’s Africana Studies Department are embarking on a new collaboration that will investigate the complexities inherent in an underrepresented aspect of Maine maritime history: the Atlantic slave trade.
Now – May 8, 2022 Fees and HourBath
George Floyd’s murder by police officers in Minneapolis, Minnesota on May 25, 2020 was filmed, and sparked a Black Lives Matter movement across the nation. In Portland, Floyd was memorialized with a large mural on the side of Aura Club on Center Street. Portland artists Ryan Adams, Jason McDonald and Mike Rich painted the mural during June 2020, which includes the words “Again We Rise” along with the names of Black people who have been killed by police officers over the years across the United States. From Maine Memory Network.
Beautiful Blackbird by Ashley Bryan is a joy to behold and a powerfully beautiful story to be told. Ashley Bryan was not only an important and prolific author, artist, and storyteller but also a lovely, kind, and giving human being. Yesterday I had the joy of sharing Beautiful Blackbird with a group of kindergartners. Many had tales to tell of when, where, and with whom they first heard this gorgeous tale, and I felt that I could see the lovely smile on Mr. Bryan’s face as these children shared their excitement for his book. Having had the true privilege of meeting Ashley Bryan twice, his smile and his enthusiasm for children and librarians is what will always stay with me.
“Then Blackbird sang,
I’ve painted plenty, plenty, plenty,
The gourd’s now empty, empty, empty.”
Thank you for, Ashley Bryan, for painting plenty and filling our gourds full of love, respect, and stories to last many, many, many lifetimes.
“We will love, laugh, and sing / and hug our children as tight as you can hold a child.” With The 1619 Project: Born on the Water, Nikole Hannah-Jones and Renée Watson adapt Hannah-Jones’ work for adults into a lyrical picture book that reclaims African American history and makes it one of resilience and pride; Nikkolas Smith’s fluid art emphasizes movement and strength. In Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre, Carole Boston Weatherford zeroes in Tulsa’s thriving Black community and the few short hours in 1921 that saw it leveled. Illustrator Floyd Cooper was a descendant of a survivor, and his loving paintings throb with pride and grief.
Brandy Colbert also takes readers to Tulsa in her first work of nonfiction for teens, Black Birds in the Sky. She carefully contextualizes the history of the area as a destination of the Trail of Tears and laying out the social, political, and economic forces that caused its Greenwood District to be known as “Black Wall Street” before describing its destruction at the hands of a white mob. And Kekla Magoon explores more-recent times with Revolution in Our Time: The Black Panther Party’s Promise to the People, also meticulously laying out the history that led to the rise of the Black Panthers before introducing its players, its achievements, and its legacy in a muscular, pull-no-punches narrative.
And remember: These history books are great even after February’s over.
I am listening to the eAudiobook version of The Lion of Marsby Jennifer L. Holm on cloudLibrary. Maxwell Glick’s narration is fantastic and makes a compelling middle grade novel even more so.
Bell has spent his entire short life living on Mars. He doesn’t understand why the U.S. Colony won’t have any contact with the other Mars settlements run by other countries. But when a weird virus breaks out and all the grownups get sick, Bell and his friends will need to find the courage to uncover the truth and try to save his family.
How Beautiful We Were, by Imbolo Mbue: You should not sleep on this release from PEN/Faulkner Award Winner Imbolo Mbue. In this novel, a community in the fictional village of Kosawa fight against an American oil company, which has moved in and wreaked havoc on their land. Many of us need a story right now where a community fights against a power that seems too big to behold, and this book hits in that special way.
Reptile Memoirs, by Silje Ulstein: Looking for some new Nordic noir? This story has all the noir goodies: a missing girl, a jaded detective, and…a twist that maybe involves a giant python? I love this genre because it will often leave you saying, “I can’t believe they just did/said that!” This book is no different. (You may want to know that it contains references to sexual assault.)
The World Cannot Give, by Tara Isabella Burton: If you’re looking for some dark academia for the 2022 Reading Challenge, you may want to add this to your list. I don’t think I can describe it better than the blurb can: “The Girls meets Fight Club in this coming-of-age novel about queer desire, religious zealotry, and the hunger for transcendence among the devoted members of a cultic chapel choir in a prestigious Maine boarding school.” Hits all those great plot points, doesn’t it?
Four Aunties and a Wedding, by Jesse Q. Sutano: The follow-up to Dial A for Aunties has a new main character…and a whole new group of kick-butt aunties. Meddy is getting married, and she soon learns she’s hired a wedding planning business owned by the mafia. After discovering a plot for murder involving the wedding, Meddy’s aunties spring into action in ways that only devoted aunties can.
Honey Girl by Morgan Rogers read by York Whitaker (available on audiobook or eAudiobook through CloudLibrary): During Covid I have been reading a LOT of lesfic especially romance. As a queer woman, I really hadn’t read anything in the romance area of fiction. I made a lot of assumptions about the genre, and I am so happy to be proven wrong. We ALL need happy endings in our lives. As I’ve gone on the romance novel journey, I’ve found that as with other genres there are various tropes that will pop up in plots. One of those tropes is the “accidentally married in Vegas” plot. I’m not sure how often this happens in real life, but in romances, it seems like it’s a surefire way to find a soulmate. Honey Girl starts out as one such trope and then veers off into its own hilarious journey. York Whitaker does a great job with the narration. If you are looking for a fun lesbian romance, this is your next read.
Documentarian Jamal Jordan’s beautiful book of portraits,Queer Love in Color, is a favorite recent read about love. Dozens of stories of joy, support, and togetherness fill the book, along with about 100 portraits. When Jordan asks one couple, Mike and Phil, what detail he should be sure to share about them, Phil says, “Remember to mention that we’ve spent every night together for over forty years.” When Tzu-Yung talks about falling for Briyana, they say, “I started to allow myself to be silly and fun and airy like I am now.” Lady Phyll writes, “In each other’s arms we create a world of possibilities, tenderness, and empowerment.” Queer Love in Color shines.
Love for family in all its complexity is at the heart of Pik-Shuen Fung’s Ghost Forest, a luminous new novel written in short chapters: “My Beautiful Nose,” “My Mom Calls From Canada While I’m In Hong Kong,” “Lunar New Year,” “Starry Night,” “Things My Dad Liked.” The protagonist is an artist writing about her sister, mom, dad, and grandma. Tender, funny, lively, and wise, this book is a true gem.
I’m very, very late to love for Murderbot, but Murderbot got me through January and I love Murderbot. If you love sci-fi with lovable characters, Martha Well’s series (starting with All Systems Red) is a real comfort read, book after book. I actually hugged the second book while I was reading because Murderbot and ART’s relationship made me so happy.
More to love: Ocean Vuong’s new poetry, the YA graphic novel Squire by Sara Alfageeh and Nadia Shammas, Vagabonds! by Eloghosa Osunde, Annie Hartnett’s Unlikely Animals, and the debut novel When We Were Birds by Ayanna Lloyd Banwo—described by Marlon James as a story where “love comes shiny, sparkling and alive. This book might just heal you.”
Rare books and the dark side of medical history meet in Dark Archives by Megan Rosenbloom. Rosenbloom, a former medical librarian, explores the stories behind anthropodermic bibliopegy (books bound in human skin) and attempts to pick out truth from myth. She approaches her research from a humanistic perspective, highlighting the lives of the people involved with the book’s lineage, with a particular focus—where possible—on the person behind the binding. She also dives into the law and ethics surrounding such books and modern-day methods of skin preservation. It’s a fascinating read.
Being Finland’s best-known film director (according to The Economist)doesn’t necessarily translate into being a household name in America, even among cinephiles. But over 18 feature films over the last 40 years, Aki Kaurismäki has earned that distinction through his spare visual language, ensemble of talented regulars, and dedication to personal stories that defy their apparent simplicity. For his commitment to a drowsy pace and deadpan acting, he could be called the Jim Jarmusch of Finland (the Helsinki segment of Jarmusch’s Night on Earth stars Kaurismäki regular Matti Pellonpää), though some of his painstakingly beautiful, static shots could be out of a slightly less symmetrical and infinitely less fanciful Wes Anderson film.
Kaurismäki’s filmmaking reflects the starkness of flat, snowy Finland–light contrasting with dark, wide expanses of featureless landscape mixed with interiors that seem nearly asempty–and make a perfect accompaniment to our own long winter nights. Very littlehappens in many of his films. Someone leaves a job, a couple seemingly arbitrarilytake up together or just as arbitrarily split apart, someone commits a petty crime, maybe theperson returns to their job. Or something of huge significance happens – a relative dies, someone commits a major crime – but everyone continues to act like very littlehas happened. The latter scenario seems to suitviewing in our present moment, the odd combination of turmoil and boredom so many have endured during the pandemic. Either way, the pathos enacted through the relatively uneventfulplots of films like Ariel, Shadows in Paradise, Lights in the Dusk, and The Man Without a Past speaks to the complexities of even the simplest lives lived in a country known in America more for its stout social safety net than for its domestic dramas and criminal underbelly.
The humor, of which there is plenty, is so dry it nearly crumbles, making even taciturn New England humor look like slapstick in comparison. There’salso almost alwaysa musical interlude. Kaurismäki is rock-and-roll obsessed, and features Finnish rockabilly bands, or in one memorable instance former Clash front manJoe Strummer (I Hired a Contract Killer), inserted clunkily into the plot to play a full song in a bar or a clubor a café (to say nothing at all ofhis Leningrad Cowboys films, stylistic outliers compared to the films discussed here and deserving of a very differentwrite-up).
His two most recent films, Le Havre and The Other Side of Hope, turn his signature visual language towards current events, specifically to immigration from North Africa and the Middle East to western and northern Europe. Though there isn’t much to explicitly predict it in the stereotypically northern settings and casts of his earlier works, Kaurismäki has been vocally critical of Finland’s and Europe’s restrictive immigration policies and displays a deep empathy with the immigrant and refugee characters at the center of each film. As in life, the Europeans onscreen vary in their responses to the newcomers, from sympathy to allyship to institutional indifference to unwarranted hatred.
If you are interested in this topic, you might wish to first watch films like Ousmane Sembène’s Black Girl, Fatih Akin’s Head-On, and others—films written and directed by filmmakers who are themselves from immigrant or underrepresented communities. Since we have all of the above in our collections (and are happy to request films we don’t have through interlibrary loan), you can also view them all and draw your own conclusions.
Despite the bleak settings, deadpan performances, and recent turn to heavier themes, Kaurismäki’s films are not without hope and light. There’s a positivity and humanity to them that can be—don’t tell the unsmiling characters in the films!—uplifting, a perfect reminder of warmth during a long, cold winter.