If you live anywhere in the South (or even if you don’t) and love picture books, and the traveling gods allow for it, there’s a very special exhibit you won’t want to miss. I haven’t seen this exhibit yet myself, but I feel compelled to tell others about it. Exhibits of such beauty deserve such rooftop yawps.
The North Carolina Museum of Art (NCMA) in Raleigh currently has on display the work of author/illustrator and storyteller Ashley Bryan, who has led a long and distinguished career in children’s literature and whose work draws, in particular, upon African-American spirituals, poetry and folklore. Bryan has received many Coretta Scott King Honors and Awards, the 2009 Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal, and last year’s Coretta Scott King–Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement.
The exhibit is named Rhythms of the Heart: The Illustration of Ashley Bryan and runs through August. In conjunction with the exhibit will be the release of Bryan’s two new volumes of spirituals, Walk Together Children: Black American Spirituals, Volume One and I’m Going to Sing: Black American Spirituals, Volume Two, published by Alazar Press.
“Each volume,” Rosemarie Gulla of Alazar Press said, “took him three years to complete because of the time it took to create the linocuts, and the time and effort involved in cutting and pressing each note, bar line, time signature, [and] staff one at a time to produce musical notations that equaled the strength of the linocut prints. Ashley explains that he did this to honor the creative genius of enslaved Africans, who despite their impossible circumstances, could create these songs. Ashley stands in awe of the human spirits that found a way to do this and uses these volumes to help teach their historic significance.”
I took some time to chat with Jennifer Dasal, associate curator of contemporary art at NCMA, about this exhibit.
Tell me about Rhythms of the Heart: What kinds of pieces are included and about how many?
Rhythms of the Heart is a career retrospective of Ashley Bryan’s works and contains over 60 individual images—crayon and pencil sketches, prints, paintings, collage and even a “book dummy” that shows how the artist visualizes a completed project. It’s a comprehensive exhibition that shows audiences how Bryan has progressed throughout his career, beginning with works created in the 1960s to illustrations done less than a decade ago. It also makes connections between recurrent themes in his work—African-American spirituals and poetry, African folktales, and the importance of oral history and storytelling—all done in Bryan’s signature bright colors and bold outlines.
What initially drew the North Carolina Museum of Art to Ashley's work and sparked an interest in this exhibit?
We were first introduced to Bryan’s work through an exhibition entitled “Fins and Feathers: Original Children’s Book Illustrations from the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art.” We hosted this show in late 2010 and were thrilled with the response—families were immediately drawn toward Bryan’s works, we had two in that exhibition, because they were so brightly colored and graphically strong. They just caught your eye in the gallery, so we just had to have more here at the NCMA!
Also, we’re always looking out for programming and exhibitions that are geared specifically toward families. As the state museum of North Carolina, children and families are two of our prime audiences, so we want to be sure to continually cultivate our relationships with them. The fact that these types of exhibitions are always free to the public is an additional bonus, of which I’m particularly proud.
Have you had a lot of children come through the exhibit? What has been their reaction to Ashley's artwork on display?
We have had lots of families and school groups come into the exhibition since it opened in mid-April, and their reactions have made it all worthwhile. Last week, I popped into the gallery briefly and noticed a family sitting around a reading table in the exhibition, where visitors can see the finished illustrations as they later appear in Bryan’s books. Together, they were flipping through the books, pointing to the works on the walls in front of them, and making the connections between the two.
Kids, it seems, love following Bryan’s process—reviewing how his early sketches end up becoming something so fun, so beautiful and so lively. I’m especially excited that this exhibition will be on view during the summer months, so that families can continue to enjoy it for a while longer.
Julie Danielson (Jules) has, in her own words, conducted approximately eleventy billion interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog focused primarily on illustration and picture books.
Photo of Ashley Bryan courtesy of Alazar Press.