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Dennis Perkins

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives on the West End with his lovely wife Emily, where they watch all the movies ever made. When not digging up stories about the Maine film scene, he can be found writing for the AV Club and elsewhere. The rest of the time, he's worrying about the Red Sox.

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Posted: August 7, 2017

Film shows that Maine artist Ashley Bryan is a man you want to know

Written by: Dennis Perkins
Ashley Bryan with his puppets Babatu and Osaze Photo courtesy of Richard Kane

Ashley Bryan with his puppets Babatu and Osaze
Photo courtesy of Richard Kane

It’s a compliment to say that Richard Kane and Robert Shetterly’s new documentary about Maine-based artist and writer Ashley Bryan feels incomplete. The film “I Know A Man… Ashley Bryan,” which is screening at Bucksport’s Lighthouse Arts Center at 5 p.m. on Saturday, profiles the 94-year-old Bryan’s long life and nearly-as-long career as a painter, printmaker, puppet-maker, children’s book author and poet.

Growing up in the pre-WWII Bronx, the young Bryan was the first black student to receive a scholarship to the prestigious Cooper Union Art School before being drafted, eventually storming Omaha Beach on D-Day as part of an all-black battalion. He drew incessantly in the trenches (sometimes on toilet paper), then after the war, returned to America where he entered the Skowhegan School of Art before becoming a professor. He retired from Dartmouth in the late 1980s and returned to Maine. He set up his studio and home on Little Cranberry Island in Hancock County, where he’s created work that has won worldwide recognition and numerous awards, including the Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal for his children’s books.

“I Know A Man… Ashley Bryan” is something of a misnomer, though. It’s not that Kane and Shetterly’s elegantly constructed film short-changes Bryan’s story in any way, it’s that the man they present is so engaging, intriguing and palpably warm that it’s inevitable that a viewer will want to know more.

Watch the trailer:

“You have to make choices about your focus when you’re making a documentary,” Kane explained. “We chose to focus on Ashley’s art, his spiritual life, his history. Everything that motivated him to be such a welcoming, embracing, loving person, as opposed to going into his personal life.” What results is a film that, like its subject’s work, is a vibrant, joyous, utterly engaging piece that carries hints of the full, often painful life Bryant has lived.

Healing the Blind, sea glass window by Ashley Bryan Image courtesy of The Ashley Bryan Center

Healing the Blind, sea glass window by Ashley Bryan
Image courtesy of The Ashley Bryan Center

Whether he’s regaling delighted school kids with his storytelling skills, doing the same leading call-and-response recitations of Langston Hughes poems in a Maine church, cantankerously preparing for an exhibit of his work or simply working on a sea glass church mosaic in the eye-dazzling orderly clutter of his packed home studio, the seemingly indefatigable Bryan is the sort of subject any documentarian would be grateful for. Kane, whose Sedgwick-based Kane-Lewis Productions (kanelewis.com) has produced more than a dozen documentary artist portraits for its Maine Masters Series, agrees. “Part of the point in making these films is to highlight artists who deserve more recognition than they receive. People around the world know more about Ashley. He gets invited to go lots of places, even if, at 94, his travels are winding down. Honestly, I think he lives for this. He lives to create art and share it. Ashley’s just a very deep-feeling, emotional, and beautiful artist.”

Kane’s right, based on everything we learn about Bryan in the film. Without ever curdling into cliché or sentimentality, Bryan’s love of both creating and sharing his art is more than infectious, it’s profound. “I Know a Man… Ashley Bryan” allows the artist to keep his distance, even as his ebullient wisdom spills from him from start to finish. Like Bryan’s puppets — crafted ingeniously from castoff materials (mussel shells, barnacles, stew bones, fishing nets, fisherman’s gloves) that wash up every day on the beaches of his island home — the film takes the mysterious gifts that the singular Bryan has left and makes something evocative, witty and thoroughly engaging from them.

“I Know a Man… Ashley Bryan,” part of the Maine Masters Series, will screen on Saturday at 5 p.m. at the Lighthouse Arts Center in Bucksport lighthouseartscenter.com, with director Richard Kane in attendance. For additional showings of the film, check out ashleybryanfilms.org.


COMING TO LOCAL SCREENS

SPACE GALLERY
Monday, Aug. 14: “Dawson City: Frozen in Time.” Become a film archaeologist with this fascinating documentary art film from “Decasia” director Bill Morrison. During the Gold Rush, the last stop for a film distribution company was the Yukon boomtown of Dawson City. The end of the line for hundreds of nitrate-print silent and newsreels, the discarded prints lay buried in the permafrost until accidentally discovered in 1978 and now assembled into a moving time capsule by Morrison.

PMA FILMS
Thursday and Sunday: “Deconstructing the Beatles: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” In his ongoing series of in-depth documentary analyses of why the Beatles are so great, musician and Beatles fanatic Scott Freiman dissects just what makes the band’s seminal 1967 album so iconic. But, you know, in a fun way.

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