The fascinating design story behind the new Maya Angelou neighborhoods

In 1993, poet and author Maya Angelou became the first African-American woman in US history to recite President Bill Clinton’s inaugural poem. Earlier this month, she also became the first African American woman to appear on the “tails” side of a US coin. But how do you portray Angelou’s tremendous legacy on a coin less than an inch in diameter?

The new quarter is part of the American Women’s Quarters Program, created to honor 20 notable women in United States history with a series of new quarters to be issued by the US Mint between 2022 and 2025. (This year, the additional winners are Sally Ride, Wilma Mankiller, Nina Otero-Warren and Anna May Wong.) Angelou’s coin was designed by Emily Damstra, an artist and illustrator who has designed over 40 coins and medals for the US Mint, including quarterback Anna May Wong, and the Royal Canadian Mint.

[Image: Emily Damstra/courtesy United States Mint]

Coins may be tiny, but the symbolism they carry is huge. Damstra was inspired by Angelou’s writing as well as her upbringing in the Jim Crow South to design the Maya Angelou neighborhood. As of January 24, the U.S. Mint has shipped more than 114 million across the country.

[Photo: courtesy United States Mint]

“Maya Angelou’s poetry is filled with inspiring imagery,” says Damstra, who prepared herself by reading Angelou’s autobiography, I know why the caged bird sings, and one of his most iconic poems, “Still I Rise.” Inspired by the meaning of the poem, Damstra portrayed Angelou in a raised pose. His arms are outstretched against a background of a bird in flight; the rays of the sun seem to rise above her, like a crown.

A bird in flight and the rising sun were common themes in Angelou’s writing, but for Damstra they are also “symbolic of the way she lived”. The bird is inspired by a purple martin, a songbird native to Arkansas, where Angelou grew up. “Purple swallows are elegant aerial foragers that spend their days diving and soaring high in the sky,” says Damstra. “I thought it would be a good species to illustrate Dr. Angelou’s poem.”

[Photo: courtesy United States Mint]

Maya Angelou and the other upcoming quarters were authorized by the Circulating Collectibles Overhaul Act of 2020, and Damstra notes that they all came with a few conditions. Most notably, the reverse side (tails) could not feature the quintessential head and shoulders portrait or bust. So Damstra opted for a figure of Angelou instead of a close-up. And since the neighborhood is so small, she kept the amount of detail to a minimum. “A career in natural science illustration satisfied my tendency to include a lot of detail in my drawings,” she says. “Negative space becomes very important to provide balance.”

[Photo: courtesy United States Mint]

Detail reports are important because once the artwork is complete, it must be sculpted into a three-dimensional object. For example, Damstra says she avoided thin lines and transparent objects because they’re hard to translate into 3D shapes.

Once designed, the Maya Angelou quarter was sculpted by the Mint’s medalist artist, Craig A. Campbell, which also sculpted Nina Otero-Warren’s neighborhood, which will be released later this year. Campbell started by sculpting an initial model in clay and plaster, then used digital software to fine-tune the final design.

Campbell explains that sculptors must follow the designer’s artwork, but “there is always a level of creativity at every stage of the process,” he says. For example, the Otero-Warren Ward features the New Mexico suffragette in a seated position with her hands crossed near a trio of flowers. The words Voting for the wife (translation: vote for women) appear to the right of her face.

Campbell’s first task was to distinguish each design element and determine the hierarchy between them. “You decide which element is closest to you, then you backtrack,” he says. In Otero-Warren’s case, the flowers were most important, followed by his hands, his body, and the letters. (With Maya Angelou’s neighborhood, he says, her body came first, then the bird and the rays of the sun.)

Once the carving is complete, the Mint uses the digital model to engrave the design into a stamp called a die, which eventually strikes quarters at a rate of 720 coins per minute. The Angelou neighborhood was hit in Philadelphia, Denver and San Francisco. With 65 presses, the Philadelphia Mint produces 46,800 coins per minute, making it one of the most elaborate and mass-produced items in design history.

Abdul J. Gaspar