Our Grandmothers, by Maya Angelou, Limited Editions Club (1994)

I have remarked in the past on how the Limited Editions Club (LEC) under Sidney Shiff did an excellent job at expanding the focus of the LEC to include many more modern works, including those by African-American writers and artists, that had been overlooked by the LEC in the past. The work highlighted in this article is a perfect example. Mr. Shiff combined the great and iconic African-American writer/poet Maya Angelou (1928-2014) with her favorite artist, the internationally acclaimed muralist and printmaker John T. Biggers (1924-2001), resulting in an important and beautiful livre d’artiste. The poem Ms. Angelou selected for this publication, Our Grandmothers, is from her 1990 poetry collection I Shall Not Be Moved. The poem epitomizes the strength, resolve and love in which black women have met the enormous challenges thrown at them throughout American history. The LEC Monthly Letter (ML) for this edition says:

‘Our Grandmothers’ is not a very long poem — little more than a hundred lines — but its power is comparable to that of William Blake, its language is as forthright as Henry Miller’s or William Borroughs’ and as colloquial as Francois Villon’s, its universality is Whitmanesque, and in it is the emotional history of a race that has worked miracles of faith, determination and progress.

My favorite lines from the poem are, reminding me of the spirit of the Declaration of Independence:

The Divine upon my right impels me to pull forever at the latch on Freedom’s gate. The Holy Spirit on my left leads my feet without ceasing into the camp of the righteous and into the tents of the free.

These words of Ms. Angelou embody hope and optimism which, coming at the end of the poem after her reflection on the many injustices black American women have suffered (each of which she ends with “I shall not be moved”), is remarkable. This combination of strength and hope, in the face of such deep and substantial injustice, is inspiring and timeless. Ms. Angelou asked for John Biggers to illustrate this edition. Wikipedia tells us that Mr. Biggers studied African myths and legends and “was particularly drawn to the creation stories of a matriarchal deistic system.” Which makes him a very apropos choice for illustrating Our Grandmothers. The LEC ML tells us of Mr. Biggers’ work:

Stories that he draws — brightly hued images layered with geometric forms — teem with characters and patterns of life.  

For this edition, Mr Biggers has created:

…five monumental lithographs that synthesize his concepts of the soul of Black Africa and its American reincarnation, of ancient myth and contemporary reality.

The ML goes on to remark on his “exquisitely balanced composition that echoes William Blakes ‘fearful symmetry.‘” The LEC under Mr. Shiff produced some of the grandest, most beautiful books of the last century. They are often truly remarkable productions, representing great work from some of the greatest practitioners of book craftsmanship in our lifetimes. In the case or Our Grandmothers, the format is an enormous 22in × 17in! The lithographs were pulled on mould-made Arches paper by Bruce Porter at Trestle Editions studio. The text was hand-set by Dan Carr and Julia Ferrari at their Golgonooza Letter Foundry. The work was printed by Dan Keleher at Wild Carrot Letterpress on hand-made paper with a careful mixture of rags, cotton pulp and bits of raw cotton from H.M.P mill in Woodstock, Connecticut. Lastly,  the book was bound by hand using Japanese linen dyed the hue of Georgia red clay by John von Isakovics at Jovonis Bindery in West Springfield, Massachusetts. A publication with the involvement of Bruce Porter, Dan Carr, Julia Ferrari, Dan Keleher and John von Isakovics cannot help itself from being finely produced! You may recall the a couple weeks ago in a review of the 1931 LEC’s of Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad, the focus was on the beautiful design and type done by Jan van Krimpen. This edition of Our Grandmothers uses Spectrum type, designed in 1934 by Mr. van Krimpen. A surprising linkage of LEC’s from 1931 and 1994! This edition can occasionally be found at a price that varies, usually between $1000 and $2000. When in your hands, it is quite a treat due to the size, visual feast and the tactile feel of the paper. Well recommended! About the Edition

  • Lithographs by John T. Biggers
  • Lithographs pulled on mould-made Arches paper by Bruce Porter at the Trestle Editions studio
  • Type is Spectrum, designed in 1934 by Jan van Krimpen; type is 28 point size with 6 points leading between the lines
  • Text hand-set by Dan Carr and Julia Ferrari at Golgonooza Letter Foundry
  • Printed by Dan Keleher at Wild Carrot Letterpress on hand-made paper with a careful mixture of rags, cotton pulp and bits of raw cotton from H.M.P mill in Woodstock, Connecticut
  • Bound by hand using Japanese linen dyed the hue of Georgia red clay by John von Isakovics at Jovonis Bindery in West Springfield, Massachusetts
  • 22″ x 17″
  • Limited to 400 copies, signed by Maya Angelou and John Biggers

Pictures of the Edition (All pictures on Books and Vines are exclusively provided, under fair use, to highlight and visualize the review/criticism of the work being reviewed. A side benefit, hopefully, is providing education on the historical and cultural benefits of having a healthy fine press industry and in educating people on the richness that this ‘old school approach’ of book publishing brings to the reading process. Books and Vines has no commercial stake or financial interest in any publisher, retailer or work reviewed on this site and receives no commercial interest or compensation for Books and Vines. Please note that works photographed are copyrighted by the publisher, author and/or illustrator as indicated in the articles. Permission to use contents from these works for anything outside of fair use purposes must come directly from the copyright owner and no permission is granted or implied to use photo’s or material found on Books and Vines for any purpose that would infringe on the rights of the copyright owner.)

Our Grandmothers, Limited Editions Club, Solander
Our Grandmothers, Limited Editions Club, Solander (pen for scale)
Our Grandmothers, Limited Editions Club, Cover
Our Grandmothers, Limited Editions Club, Cover
Our Grandmothers, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Cover
Our Grandmothers, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Cover
Our Grandmothers, Limited Editions Club, Frontispiece and Title Page
Our Grandmothers, Limited Editions Club, Frontispiece and Title Page
Our Grandmothers, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Title Page
Our Grandmothers, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Title Page
Our Grandmothers, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #1 with Text
Our Grandmothers, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #1 with Text
Our Grandmothers, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Text
Our Grandmothers, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Text
Our Grandmothers, Limited Editions Club, Sample Text #1
Our Grandmothers, Limited Editions Club, Sample Text #1
Our Grandmothers, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #2 with Text
Our Grandmothers, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #2 with Text
Our Grandmothers, Limited Editions Club, Sample Text #2
Our Grandmothers, Limited Editions Club, Sample Text #2
Our Grandmothers, Limited Editions Club, Colophon
Our Grandmothers, Limited Editions Club, Colophon

3 thoughts on “Our Grandmothers, by Maya Angelou, Limited Editions Club (1994)

  1. kermaier:

    The HMP paper is indeed otherworldly and there is an interesting note from the Pyracantha Press in this regard, on the page prior to the colophon:

    “The 100% rag handmade paper was created to be typical in color, content, and texture of many late 16th century papers, although a wove rather than laid surface was chose to facilitate the printing of the lithographs (wove papers were first made in 1754 while lithography was invented/discovered in 1798).”

  2. As a side note, HMP made the specially blended paper for the Pyracantha Press edition of “Venus and Adonis” — and that’s some really luscious paper.

  3. I consider the body of work published by Sidney Shiff in the latter days of the LEC as one of the high points amongst private presses in the twentieth century and own many of his books, but this is not one of my favorites – for several reasons. Maya Angelou is one of the seminal figures in African-American literature and this book screams out for a generous selection of her poetry. It is difficult to justify spending between $1000 to $2000 for a book comprised of a single one-hundred line poem. Additionally, the book size is overblown and excessive for what this is. The poetry seems lost on the giant-sized pages of this 22 x 17 inch book. Perhaps Shiff thought the elephant folio size was necessary and/or appropriate for John T. Biggers’ illustrations.

    While on the subject of the illustrations, these are hardly compelling. Several other Shiff-LEC books illustrated by African-American artists have far more interesting illustrations. Biggers’ work looks as if someone let him loose at a computer with a software program capable of generating artwork. They have a mechanical, high-schoolish quality to them. By contrast, Jacob Lawrence’s work for ‘Hiroshima’ and ‘The Book of Genesis’ are far more effective, as are Betye Saar’s serigraphs for the superb LEC ‘Bookmarks in the Pages of Life’ by Zora Neale Hurston.

    Simply put, I’ll take a pass on this book. It is, for me, one of Shiff’s few “misses” in his LEC bibliography. One final thought – although Sidney Shiff pioneered in publishing important African-American works of poetry and literature in beautiful private press editions, my favorite private press book in this genre was published by the Arion Press. Their edition of Jean Toomer’s ‘Cane’ (2000) is superb in all aspects. The work is a masterpiece of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920’s, one of the most important and experimental works of African-American literature and it is beautifully printed on a combination of German mouldmade Biblio paper and Japanese Kitakata paper for the woodcut illustrations by Martin Puryear.

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