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African American artists and writers in the Limited Editions Club

By Peter Mears

The stories I selected span three decades and show (Zora Neal) Hurston’s diversity in writing styles and subject matter. I created my illustrations from fragments of fabric, paper and faded photos. The layering of images, patterns and textures evoke the feeling of memory and old tales retold. So they become, like the stories, “Bookmarks in the Pages of Life.”—Betye Saar, artist’s afterword to Bookmarks in the Pages of Life


Betye Saar (b. 1926). Illustration for Zora Neale Hurston’s <em>Bookmarks in the Pages of Life</em> (2000). Copyright Betye Saar.
Betye Saar (b. 1926). Illustration for Zora Neale Hurston’s Bookmarks in the Pages of Life (2000). Copyright Betye Saar.


Betye Saar’s six serigraphs read like well-worn pictures found tucked away in family photo albums. Published in 2000 by the Limited Editions Club, her collage-like illustrations for Zora Neale Hurston’s book of short stories Bookmarks in the Pages of Life give visible life to a host of spirited protagonists that range from a sanctified faith healer and Harlem dandies in zoot suits to struggling lovers and an elderly widow facing Southern justice alone with strength and quiet dignity.


This pairing of notable black authors and artists in one publication began in 1983 when Sid Shiff (1924–2010), who had taken ownership of the Limited Editions Club just five years earlier, published Romare Bearden’s color lithographs for The Caribbean Poems of Derek Walcott. Shiff’s interest in utilizing black artists to illustrate stories of epic change continued that same year when he published Jacob Lawrence’s powerful but chilling silkscreens for John Hersey’s Hiroshima. Lawrence would engage with Shiff again in 1989 creating large serigraphs for the Club’s publication of Eight Passages for the First Book of Moses called Genesis. Throughout the series of prints we see an impassioned preacher recite the Genesis story to a rapt congregation as darkness turns to light and earth’s creatures come to life.


Shiff’s vision for the club was similar to Limited Editions Club founder George Macy’s (1900–1956), who offered reasonably priced literary classics illustrated by artists and graphic designers all limited to members at 1,500 copies. Macy’s more notable books were Aristophanes’s Lysistrata (1934) illustrated by Pablo Picasso and James Joyce’s Ulysses illustrated by Henri Matisse (1935). However, Shiff’s strategy for the club evolved over time by limiting the annual edition size while expanding the artistic scope to include beautifully crafted deluxe artists’ books printed on handmade paper with letterpress text in the tradition of French livres d’artistes. Shiff also offered club members and collectors signed editions of artists’ prints on the same handmade paper. These were housed in custom linen boxes that were one and the same with the companion book’s cover and illustrations. Following his collaborations with Jacob Lawrence in the 1980s, Shiff remained committed to publishing celebrated African American authors and artists together throughout the 1990s and well into the new millennium.


Most of the club’s publications under Shiff also include an artist’s note or afterword by the artist/illustrator, as in Saar’s inspired response to Hurston’s short stories quoted above. This practice of offering artists the opportunity to select and illustrate their favorite stories was apparently not uncommon during Shiff’s tenure with the Club. These additional contributions by the artists are often deeply personal in response to the dramatic stories and characters they illuminate.


Like Saar, artist Benny Andrews also had the opportunity to select a story to illustrate, (2005) and he chose one that was set close to home. In response to Flannery O’Connor’s Everything that Rises Must Converge, Andrews wrote, “How do I start describing why I choose to illustrate a story by Flannery O’Connor? I knew I couldn’t just approach doing something from her work as if it were a typical illustration commission. I had to face up to the deeper meaning of not only her roots, but also mine.” (Andrews’s home was just 30 miles from O’Connor’s hometown of Milledgeville, Georgia.) He adds:


I see her work as being of use in making a more powerful force than our two parallel lines make… The final illustration, like that of O’Connor’s story, remains open-ended. Neither offers definitive solutions. The Negro and the white lady have met down at the crossroads, but that’s just where they are, at the crossroads. It is up to the reader of the story and the viewer of my artwork to look at two Southerners and wonder, wonder, and hopefully wonder more.


John Wilson chose to illustrate Richard Wright’s short story “Down by the Riverside” in 2001. Wilson comments on how the print medium can reinforce the symbolic meaning:


I chose to illustrate this story because of Wright’s vivid dramatic setting. Etching techniques like aquatint and spit biting were ideal to interpret the dark brooding, murky atmosphere. Above all, the river with its powerful currents and its violent energy lends itself to aquatint. It seemed to symbolize basic forces of nature. I wanted the blue translucent shapes and flowing rhythms of the water to carry the figures from one episode to another.



Dean Mitchell (b. 1957). Illustration for Maya Angelou’s “Music, Deep Rivers in my Soul” (2003). Copyright Dean Mitchell.
Dean Mitchell (b. 1957). Illustration for Maya Angelou’s “Music, Deep Rivers in my Soul” (2003). Copyright Dean Mitchell.


Like Wilson’s “blue translucent shapes and flowing rhythms of the water,” Dean Mitchell’s color etchings of New Orleans jazz musicians that accompany Maya Angelou’s “Music, Deep Rivers in my Soul” (2003) are complemented by an original jazz composition on disk by Wynton Marsalis. The illustrations by Mitchell and Marsalis’s composition are all in sync and flow with the poetic narrative. “Maya Angelou wrenches her poetry from her heart and sets it free to sing the pain and joy, not of one heart, but of humanity. This is her jazz,” wrote Mitchell in the book’s afterword. “I pick up the brush or stylus to probe the depths of my soul. This is my jazz. The jazz musician lifts his instrument and reinvents age-old melodies to capture the rhythms of his heart, to allow his spirit to soar. This is his life. Poet, artist, jazz player–our themes are highly personal, yet universal.”


For more information on the African American artists and authors featured in the Ransom Center’s Limited Editions Club publications contact the Center’s art collection at or view the Limited Editions Club finding aid.


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