Ellen Sheffield, “The Ages of Peonies”

Ellen Sheffield
Gambier, Ohio

The Ages of Peonies
artist book: letterpress & digital images
9 x 6.375 x .625″

Artist Statement

Peony (Paeonia) bushes can live for a century. Mine was transplanted from my husband’s grandmother’s garden after her death. Grandma Bertha Hammonds was a so-called colored cleaning woman her entire life in our small town where Marian Anderson performed in 1930. So too were Ethel Reynolds, Gertrude Jones, Viola Booker, Mable Mayle, Anna Sites and Midge McGee all members of the Colored Women’s Glee Club. Miss Anderson’s mother in Philadelphia also scrubbed floors to support her young daughters. This artist’s book is inspired by these women and their drive to bring beauty into their communities in the face of exclusion and racial prejudice.

My thanks to Ric Sheffield and to Nancy Zafris for their research and writing about the colored women’s clubs and this concert and to the Morgan Conservatory Artist’s Residency Program during which I printed the text in letterpress from polymer plates and wood type. The book includes inkjet prints and letterpress on Rives paper with handmade Morgan cotton abaca paper on the covers and a musical score in Miss Anderson’s handwriting printed on a book cloth spine (18 pages using drum leaf binding).

Images used in my original collages are courtesy of the Shared Shelf Commons of Penn Library’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library Image Collection Marian Anderson Archives and the Knox County Black History Archive. Additional images include my photos of Mt. Vernon, Ohio’s historic Woodward Opera House’s vintage wallpaper and Grandma Hammonds still blooming peonies. The Ages of Peonies is my “found” poem constructed from newspaper accounts and historical research. A pdf of the text of this poem is included in this application. Additional text in the book includes the lyrics to the spiritual song Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child performed by Miss Anderson at the Mt. Vernon concert.