A legendary Bronx artist, storyteller and writer is revealing his decades old secret that almost no one knew — his service as a World War II soldier in the fight against the Nazis.
Born on July 13, 1923 in Harlem and raised in the Bronx, Ashley Bryan is a 96-year-old veteran and published author of a series of children’s books.
In his new illustrated memoir, ‘Infinite Hope – A Black Artist’s Journey from World War II to Peace’, published on Tuesday, October 15, Bryan shares his story of being drafted out of art school at the age of 19 and into World War II.
The memoir, featuring never-before-seen artwork, photographs, and handwritten letters to his neighbor Eva, is about segregated army service during World War II and how love and the pursuit of art sustained Bryan throughout his time spent overseas.
“It gave me a sense of what can be creative and constructive when you’re living in the midst of destruction and suffering,” said Bryan, who was assigned to serve as a member in the 502nd Port Battalion, a company of 20 Black soldiers.
Carrying charcoal pencils in his gas mask, using any paper he could find to draw on from napkins to toilet paper, Bryan created hundreds upon hundreds of sketches, drawings and paintings while deployed. During his days-off, he would sketch the soldiers at rest, he said.
For years, Bryan faced the injustices of war, and equally damaging, the injustices specific to Black soldiers in a segregated army.
“We Blacks had risked our lives — thousands had lost their lives — to stop those people they had segregated out, deemed as lesser, as unworthy,” Bryan said in his memoir. “And yet in many respects, we were being treated in the same way.”
However, Bryan sought the opportunity to continue studying art in Europe while deployed.
After the war, Bryan completed his Cooper Union degree, studied philosophy and literature at Columbia University on the GI Bill, and then went to Europe on a Fulbright scholarship, seeking to understand why humans choose war.
He then returned to the U.S., teaching art in the Bronx and at several schools and universities, retiring in the 1980s to Maine’s Cranberry Isles as professor emeritus of Dartmouth College.
Bryan has published more than 50 books to date — many of which include African American subjects. He has received numerous prestigious awards for his work and humanitarian contributions.
In 2014, The Ashley Bryan Center was established to preserve, celebrate and share Bryan’s work, while providing scholarships, exhibitions, and opportunities in the arts.
“I’m always challenged each day by the desire to do good and be creative,” Bryan said. “When you wake up in the morning and be thankful for the oxygen we breathe and for the light of the day, and to say ‘this is a new adventure’ embracing it as a child would,” Bryan said.