December 16, 2016

Bryan's Songs

        I’ve recently discovered another book illustrated with wood block prints.  Walk Together Children is a a collection of Black American spirituals, simply the music and lyrics, illustrated with large wood block prints by Ashley Bryan.  These blocks are quite rough-hewn, with the space entirely full of details or textures.  Interestingly, the pages of music are also carved, but I’m focussing on the pictures, and I’ve selected a few to share with you today.
        First up, a really beautiful portrait of a family.  They hold up their heads with dignity, and their faces are rough-worn but they look as if they might be just about to smile.  Their eyes are especially beautiful.
        The people in this second piece are much less detailed, and the two at the back of the boat look a bit wooden, although the family in the middle are lovely.  The huge waves and rough water almost dwarf the boat, and the oarsmen are straining.  The child looks quite unhappy - I hope he isn’t going to be sick! - but by contrast the man and the woman in the middle are quite calm, singing in their faith.
        I like all the details in this view of small houses, possibly slave quarters, or possibly a humble freehold.  Overall the piece is quite busy with a lot going on, rather jumbled together, but I like the one white leaf on the plant in the lower right, and I like the tree in the upper right.  I like the chickens, and the pattern of the crookedy shingles on the roof.
        Finally, here’s a piece with several separate elements, rather than a single cohesive scene.  My favorite part is the tree with the animals, especially the owl and the monkey.  I like the way the leaves fill in all the spaces between things, sometimes black and sometimes striped.  I’m dubious about the angel’s embouchure, having a couple of trumpeters in the family, but I like the wings.  The young man in the lower left is once again beautifully portrayed.
        I’ve seen some of Ashley Bryan’s other artwork, including sculptures made from found objects, and he always has a nice sensibility of finding the beauty in the ordinary.  It’s a real treat to see how his block prints reflect the dignity and joy in songs born of injustice and unspeakable hardship.
        (Also, I featured a couple more of Bryan’s block prints here.)

[Pictures: O Freedom;
Deep River;
My Good Lord’s Done Been Here;
Where Shall I Be?, all wood block prints from Walk Together Children: Black American Spirituals, by Ashley Bryan, Atheneum, 1974.]

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