Aminah Robinson Biography
Mentored by Barber, Used Animal Skin for Chair Seat, Created Tapestry
"For me, art is not a job or a career," Columbus, Ohio, artist Aminah Robinson told the Cleveland Plain Dealer. "It's a way of life. Always has been." Many artists live by a similar credo, but few have immersed themselves in art as intensely as Robinson, who is reported to rise at 4 a.m. to begin work and to continue working until midnight or beyond. Robinson works in her Columbus home and a small backyard structure she calls the Doll House. It would be inaccurate to say that Robinson has a studio, for her home is a studio and sometimes a medium—she makes art from scraps of material that she finds or that people bring to her, from doors, walls, porch components, and even floors. Her kitchen floor is a complex mosaic of materials that includes the baby teeth of her son, who committed suicide at age 27.
Yet Robinson's art has not focused primarily upon her own life. Rather, she is creatively rooted in a specific place, to a degree matched by few other artists. "My work and life are about Columbus, Ohio…the community, ancestors, and spirits," Robinson told the Cincinnati Enquirer. Her thousands of works are made from an astonishing assortment of materials including fabric, needlepoint, paint, ink, charcoal, plastic, metal, glass, clay, a huge miscellany of found objects, animal skins obtained from a Columbus slaughterhouse, and a concoction called hogmawg that her father taught her to make from mud, pig grease, red clay, crushed brick, sticks, and glue. Many of them show scenes of Columbus life past and present, often focusing on Robinson's east-side neighborhood of Poindexter Village. Considered a community treasure by Columbus art lovers, Robinson was gradually discovered by the wider art world. She was awarded a $500,000 MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant in the year 2004.
Aminah Robinson was born on February 18, 1940, in Columbus. The name Aminah, meaning faithful or trustworthy in Arabic, was given to her by an Egyptian religious leader she met on an African trip in 1979; Brenda Lynn Robinson was her given name. The year she was born, her family moved to Poindexter Village, a new housing project that replaced what had been a semi-rural African-American community known as Blackberry Patch. Her family told her stories about the old neighborhood, including colorful local characters like the Chickenfoot Woman and the Crowman, who carried a pet crow on his head. Robinson later wove these figures into her artistic world. Another storyteller in Robinson's childhood was her great-aunt Cordelia (or "Big Annie"). Born into slavery in Georgia, Big Annie recounted the grim history of the Middle Passage and of the life of African Americans under slavery. Robinson wrote down her aunt's words and expanded on them in works that depicted the history of African peoples in the New World.
Robinson's parents inspired her creativity; her father, a school custodian, was adept at finding artistic uses for everyday materials like wood and leather, and her mother was a skilled seamstress. Despite being raised in a Catholic family, Robinson followed the beat of her own drum, and would defy her parents by sneaking out of her house by climbing out a bathroom window to take drawing lessons at a local community center. "It didn't matter how many spankings or Hail Marys I got," she told the Cincinnati Enquirer. She never went anywhere without a sketch pad, and she gave herself a basic education in figure drawing by sketching bodies at a nearby funeral parlor. "She'd draw whatever she'd think of," Robinson's sister Sandra Sue told the Plain Dealer. "I remember one time she did a self-image with a rabbit coming out of her head." By the time she was eight, Robinson was ready for her debut solo exhibition: a series of pictures hung on a clothesline during a church revival.
Mentored by Barber
Sometimes wrongly characterized as a folk artist because of her strong attachment to a specific community, Robinson actually had various kinds of training. She attended the Columbus Art School (now the Columbus College of Art and Design) from 1956 to 1960, later taking classes at Ohio State University, Franklin University, and Bliss College. She also had as a mentor a Columbus barber named Elijah Pierce, who displayed his woodcarvings in his shop and, Robinson told the Plain Dealer, taught her to take in the world through "four ears"—the heart, soul, "illuminations," and ancestors.
In 1958 Robinson got a job at the Columbus Public Library, where she did illustration work and also took the chance to read about the history of the city's African-American neighborhoods, enriching her fund of stories. She married an Air Force serviceman, Charles Robinson, in 1964 and followed him to several bases around the country, finding illustration jobs with a telephone company in Idaho and a television station in Mississippi. The couple had a son, Sydney, who inherited his mother's creativity but went into engineering instead after witnessing his mother's dire financial conditions. Not fulfilling his creative impulses, "he became very depressed," Robinson told the Enquirer.
Robinson's marriage ended in 1971. Back in Columbus, she got a job with the Columbus Recreation and Parks Department, teaching art at the same community center—the Beatty Recreation Center—she had sneaked out of the house to study at as a child. She worked there until 1990, making very little money and at one point going on welfare after she was hospitalized with a back injury—she had no disability benefits. Through a clerical error, Robinson was overpaid. She returned the extra payment to the state in installments of ten dollars a month, spread over ten years.
Used Animal Skin for Chair Seat
All through the years of her marriage, Robinson had kept on making art, but she began a new period of development when she returned to Columbus and moved into a house there in 1974. She began by building herself an incredibly ornate chair with a home-tanned skin for a seat, and eventually the house became so packed with materials awaiting use and half-finished artworks that only narrow corridors were left for her to move around in. Robinson's reputation spread out from her Columbus neighborhood in widening circles, beginning with an Ohio Arts Council grant she received in 1979. That year, she embarked on a tour of Africa, visiting the sites from which slaves began their deadly journeys to the Americas.
Although Robinson was reluctant to part with her works, which she never considered really finished but sometimes conceded were sufficiently "resolved" to display, she began to agree to museum exhibitions in the early 1980s. A one-woman show at Chicago's Esther Saks Gallery in 1984 was followed by others at the Akron Art Museum (1987 and 1988), the Columbus Museum of Art (1990), the National Museum for Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C. (also 1990), and various colleges and university art galleries. As her fame grew, she sold some works if she approved of the buyer; they commanded prices of up to $20,000 apiece.
Many of Robinson's works were large in scale, and some were enormous narrative scrolls that she might work on for years or even decades, incorporating the full range of materials she used. She called these scrolls Button Beaded Music Box RagGonNon Pop-Up Books, or RagGonNon for short. The RagGonNons (the term, she told the Columbus Dispatch, means "it's made of rag, and it's gone–into the future") could be 200 feet or more in length and were embellished at intervals with music boxes. Not quite that long were the 40-foot panels she was commissioned to create for the Columbus Metropolitan Library in 1990, depicting historic African-American neighborhoods in the city. Robinson considered that commission a breakthrough, for it enabled her to begin to make art full-time.
Robinson's depictions of Columbus became more and more intricate. Her 1992 painting "Life in Sellsville 1871-1900" led her to research city directories and maps of the time in search of such details as exact house numbers and residents' names. Robinson illustrated several children's books in the 1990s, and in 1998 she undertook a second major voyage. Accompanied by her agent, Susan Saxbe, and by Ohio Arts Council director Wayne Lawson, she visited Israel in 1998. She wandered into a neighborhood populated by Hasidic Jews, stirring up interest with her incredibly slender frame (she eats very little, mostly fruit) and multiple body piercings. "When they got to know her, they gave her ties and used material to include in her work," Lawson told the Cincinnati Enquirer.
Along with other chapters of her life, Robinson included her Israeli experiences in an ongoing tapestry called "Journeys" that she had begun in 1968. Various panels depicted the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the Ohio General Assembly, and the victims of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. "It's very medieval," curator Annegreth Nill told the Columbus Dispatch. "It encompasses all of the effort and changes that Aminah's gone through." The work became the centerpiece of a retrospective exhibition of Robinson's work called Symphonic Poem: The Art of Aminah Robinson. Organized by the Columbus Museum of Art in 2003, the exhibition was slated to travel to other museums in the East, Midwest, and South in the mid-2000s. Her 1974 chair was removed from her house for the show, a process that involved knocking down a wall; Robinson agreed to let it happen if the museum would install a fresh wooden door that she could carve into a new artwork.
The year 2004 saw Robinson preparing to install two giant cloth works that had been commissioned for the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, to show her children's books at the Art Institute of Chicago, and to travel to Santiago, Chile for an artist-in-residence program and a museum showing of her works at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes. All the attention "gives me something to do in my old age," Robinson quipped to Columbus Dispatch reporter Bill Mayr. In the fall of that year, Robinson was surprised to learn that she had been named a Mac-Arthur Fellow and was slated to receive its unrestricted $500,000 stipend—a prize intended not to reward past accomplishments but to stimulate new creative activity. The MacArthur Foundation, according to its Web site, called her works "Homeric in content, quantity, and scale."
Robinson's works astound those who have never encountered them, and they have been something of a mystery even to her. "I don't know what I do," she told the Plain Dealer. "The process is a divine mystery because I'm usually in a trance when I work." The small room in which she sleeps is stacked floor-to-ceiling with books on African-American history and literature, but she has also acknowledged a more distant influence—Italy's Leonardo da Vinci, the painter of the "Mona Lisa." "I love him," Robinson told the Plain Dealer. "His work talks to my soul. Always has."
Associated Press, March 24, 2003, BC cycle.
Cincinnati Enquirer, August 1, 2003.
Columbus Dispatch, April 24, 2002, p. F8; December 8, 2002, p. E1; August 5, 2003, p. E6; December 28, 2003, p. H1; August 22, 2004, p. D1; September 5, 2004, p. D5; September 28, 2004, p. A1.
Jet, October 18, 2004, p. 36.
Plain Dealer (Cleveland, OH), October 31, 2004, Sunday Magazine, p. 10.
Publishers Weekly, September 7, 1992, p. 62; October 10, 1994, p. 70; March 23, 1998, p. 99.
"Aminah Robinson: Folk Artist," MacArthur Foundation, www.macfdn.org/programs/fel/fellows/robinson_aminah.htm (January 20, 2005).
—James M. Manheim
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