Infinite Hope: A Black Artist's Journey from World War II to Peace
Simon & Schuster, Atheneum Books for Young Readers, NY, NY, 2019
112 pp., illus.Trade, $21.99
ISBN: 978 1-5344-0490-8.
This publication normally reviews books that link art and science, but here's a rich one that links art and social science. Infinite Hope is the hand-illustrated memoir of a painter in the United States' racially segregated armed forces in World War Two.
An arty kid from the Bronx drafted into the Army growing up in the north, Ashley Bryan had experienced prejudice but not segregation. At first billeted in Massachusetts rather than the South, the petty indignities of his military life were mitigated by attentively drawing the Boston children curious about this cheerful black man and his art supplies. Bryan's sketches and gouaches are the mainstay of this book, ostensibly for young readers but a serious, informative plain-spoken narrative, teaching much about WWII and a soldier's life, for any age. By page 3 the Nazis' eugenic theory and a map of Axis-dominated Europe in 1953 serve to introduce the reasons behind this war.
Ashley Bryan's unit was the 502nd Port Battalion, whose job it was to load and unload ships. Stationed in Glasgow, they were received with friendship until white officers imposed restrictions on the black men. Yet an appreciative Colonel let him attend classes at the Glasgow School of Art.
Soon Bryan found himself on a Liberty Ship off Omaha beach in Operation Overlord on D-Day, 1944. Black quartermaster companies were assigned to clear the beach of mines, probing with mess forks (!) for explosives and, then, ordered to hastily bury and hide the more than 3600 casualties on the first day of the invasion. The author quietly mentions the bloodshed . . . and that quiet tone is a key to the long gestation of this book.
The London Review of Books recently published an appreciation of J.D. Salinger, concluding that Salinger's silences within his fictions and his public life were rooted in the wartime horrors he'd seen. Ashley Bryan's strategy for 70+ postwar years has been "infinite hope,” immersion in the light and color of his garden, and the wider world, not speaking about the war to his colleagues or students. Only the sketches, small brightly-colored gouache paintings and letters he sent home to his cousin Eva, bore witness. He finally returned to these sketches and letters, and here they are juxtaposed with fine wartime photos of the 502nd Battalion by Martin Hayden, shared by his son, often presented under sketches, as if Bryan drew directly upon copies of the prints. If Bryan's not in the photos, they’re of guys like him.
Now 96, prolific Ashley Bryan preceded this book with Blooming Beneath the Sun, a festive treatment of Christina Rosetti's collection of short nature poems with his cut paper collages, reminiscent of Henri Matisse's Jazz series. It is interesting that Infinite Hope, a book in which the pictures—of military experience—are as prominent as the text also finds its home in the children's market. The team that produced it includes designers, military historians, archivists and typists transcribing Bryan's handwriting. His re-examined sketches have inspired new paintings by him…but only of the men at play, rolling dice in an autonomous zone momentarily free from war, authority, and racism.
To this day, Bryan thanks these men in his battalion for often taking on extra tasks in order to give him the time to draw. Beyond its story and specific record, what this book shows is the vitality of the sketchbook as both an objective and subjective witness to history via lived experience and attentive observation in daily life, perhaps even more so in the era of the phone camera in the pocket.
I immediately shared Ashley Bryan's wartime sketches with my Beginning Drawing students, from whom a sketchbook is required and graded. I said, “Look, these are drawn by someone who was YOUR age, witnessing history through the life around him.” I remind my class that the kid who can draw will always find employment, as drawing took me to career adventures in Silicon Valley tech industry and elsewhere. For I was one of Bryan's students in the 1970s, when he'd animatedly tell his class about Hokusai, who called himself "an old man mad about drawing." So, with much thanks to Ashley Bryan, If I'm doing my day job right, my own students may call me that.