Friday, August 1, 2003

Center's artist choice rooted to Ohio

Aminah Robinson mixes materials and colors and gives life to stories of freedom

By Marilyn Bauer
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Aminah Robinson sits in her chair "Gift of Love" displayed at the Columbus Museum of Art.
(Steven M. Herppich photos)
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Her Great-Aunt Cordelia was born into slavery on Sapelo Island, Ga. Earlier ancestors called Angola home. Thirteen generations of her family have lived on land that is now part of Columbus, and she is mentoring her nephew to carry on the traditions and stories of her family, extended family and greater community.

"My work and life are about Columbus, Ohio ... the community, ancestors and spirits," says Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson, 63, who has just received the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center commission to create the signature piece of public art for the building's 5,000-square-foot Welcome Hall.

The piece entitled "Journeys" is what Robinson calls a "Button Beaded RagGonNon Music Pop-Up BoOk." Brilliantly colored, heavily adorned and painted, it is laden with stories of the present and recent past. When completed, it will measure 22 feet high by 30 feet long.

It's made from found objects: fabric, beads, shells, leaves, bark, handmade paper and twigs. Embellished with music boxes and hand-lettered manuscripts, it carries the history of her community - Poindexter Village, one of the nation's first federally funded urban housing projects - and intimations of her ancestral past.

Robinson's RagGonNons - "they rag on and on" - are works in progress that evolve over the years with her travels and experience.

[IMAGE] Robinson's "RagGonNon" entitled "Journeys"
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" 'Journeys' is this fabulous example of her RagGonNons, which are so important because they tell very complex stories," says Carole Miller Genshaft, director of education at the Columbus Museum of Art and curator of the museum's recent retrospective of Robinson's work. "It is about her journey but also the journey of African-Americans from the time they lived in Africa before slavery to the present."

Robinson has been working on "Journeys" for 35 years. A portion of it hangs in the Columbus museum's entry.

It includes work inspired by trips she has taken to Africa, Sapelo Island, New York and Israel. It also holds references to the Ohio Black Laws of 1804 that made it illegal to harbor an escaped slave and to the declaration of the Emancipation Proclamation.

"I call it 'Journeys' because it is a sharing of the places I've been and of Columbus, Ohio, which I never forget," Robinson says.

Art started at age 3

She's curled up like a cat in the leather sling of a throne worthy of the great Zulu warrior Shaka. The chair, which sits in the Columbus museum, was extracted from her home by knocking down her front door and portions of the walls. It is a magnificent sculpture fraught with primitive figures, wooden crosses and staves.

"I told them they could have the chair and knock down the walls as long as they gave me a good wood door I could carve on," she says.

She is a small, thin woman with a presence that flickers between commanding and radiant warmth. Her clothing hangs from a frame kept fragile through a diet of predominantly fruit and soup. She has enormous, emotional brown eyes, a dazzling smile and a tiny gold ring in her nose. There are five golden hoops in each ear and her head is shaved except for a patch of hair at the crown. She is beautiful, ageless, irresistible.

"I started doing art when I was 3," she says. "I was never without a sketchbook. Never. I would climb out of the bathroom window to go over to the Beatty Recreation Center across the street to paint and draw. It didn't matter how many spankings or Hail Marys I got. I was passionate about my art."

Robinson was born on Feb.18, 1940, the same year her family moved to Poindexter Village on Columbus' east side. The area once known as the Blackberry Patch, was primarily farm land on the edge of town.Several of Robinson's relatives grew up there.

Robinson credits her father, a custodian for nearly 30 years in the Columbus Public Schools, with encouraging her work and teaching her how to mix up a batch of hogmawg, the homespun mixture of hog grease, paint, Elmer's glue, wood putty and sticks she still uses today. "My studio was under my bed," she says. "I never had any doubt in my mind about being an artist. I had my first exhibition when I was 8 years old. I hung my pictures on a clothesline with pins on the corner of Mount Vernon and Champion during a church revival. My father knew and he taught me certain things I needed to know to survive as an artist."

Crowman and Sockman

Her mother taught her the more traditional arts of spinning, weaving, button work and sewing, while Great-Aunt Cordelia provided the connection to Robinson's ancestral past.

"I had no idea of what she was passing on to me," she says. "She gave me the family history."

"Big Annie," as she was known, told Robinson stories of her family in West Africa and the horrific cruelty of the Middle Passage, a time between the 15th and 19th centuries when Africans were shipped as human cargo to a life of slavery in the New World.

The young artist kept careful notes and would later incorporate the family story into some of her most important works.

"My father and great-aunt and Uncle Alvin told me that our ancestors are forever with us," she says. "There's no place you can go without them. They are the bridges. They are among us. I see them. They are spirits. They are movement. They speak to me."

From the time she was 3, her mother's oldest brother, Alvin, brought her stories from the Blackberry Patch populated with characters such as the Chickenfoot Woman and Brownyskin Man.

"These are people who were part of the environment of Poindexter Village and the Mount Vernon area," she says. "They came door-to-door and they intrigued me. Can you imagine the Sockman going door-to-door asking to mend old socks? And the Crowman, who had a pet crow that would sit on his head? He told us stories about being kind to animals."

After Robinson graduated from high school, she went on to study art at the Columbus Art School, now the Columbus College of Art and Design. Later, at her father's insistence, she studied philosophy and English at Ohio State.

She met Charles Robinson, a staff sergeant in the Air Force, at a dance. They married in 1964 and she moved with his postings from Columbus to Idaho, Nebraska, Mississippi (where her son Sydney was born in 1967) and Puerto Rico.

"Everywhere I went, I did two bodies of work," she says. "One was of the place I visited. The other was always of Columbus, Ohio. Columbus, Ohio, gave me everything. It is my soul."

When the marriage went south, she and Sydney moved back to Columbus, where she held a number of jobs, including art instructor with the Columbus Recreation and Parks Department. She always kept up with her artwork. She still wakes at 4 a.m. to resume work on one of her many projects.

"There's a spiritual element in all my work," says Robinson, who was raised Catholic but refused to attend Catholic school. "I pray over each piece and hope it will bring some kind of goodness to other people."

Art everywhere

"I live very simply," she says as she opens the side door to her home. Sweetie and Pineapple, her boisterous mixed-breed dogs, jump up in predictable anticipation of their roommate's return. The home is more of an environment than a traditional residence. Art is everywhere, even imbedded in the kitchen floor - concrete adorned with buttons, glass, even her son's baby teeth.

There are few free surfaces. The kitchen table is obscured by a large sculpture of a man and what looks to be a hogmawg and wooden slave ship. There are bags of fabric everywhere and hogmawg heads with eyes and Brillo pad hair bopping up from vertical surfaces.

Robinson doesn't have a bed. She doesn't have a studio, either. Just this womb of her own creation where every room holds a project and a sliver of egress for the artist to visit her work. She moves among the rooms as the projects call to her. The RagGonNon for the Freedom Center is on a long table in the basement. She rolls it up on both ends to work on its intricate surface.

"There's a lot of work to do," she says, shaking her head. "It's a lot of work to do in a year."

She's not sure how long this portion is. She has never seen it unraveled. When the other half of the piece was about to go to the Columbus Museum of Art, curators brought it to a large room at the museum to unfurl and see in its entirety.

Although she feels fortunate in her life's journey, she has had her share of hardships. Perhaps the most devastating was her son's suicide in 1994.

"Sydney saw how I struggled to make a living and said 'I will never struggle like that to be an artist,' " she says. "He got a degree from Ohio State in ceramic engineering, but he had a difficult time trying to like this engineering work, because he was a very creative person. He became very depressed."

Sydney moved to Chicago to live with his father and get a certificate to teach mentally disabled kids. Three weeks before graduating, the 27-year-old took his life in his father's basement.

Community connections

Robinson's connection to her community is tangible and the community's connection to her art is just as real. Neighbors anonymously leave fabric scraps on her front porch; friends helped her raise money and arrange her inspirational trips to Israel and Africa. The Ohio Arts Council awarded her first grant in 1979 and has made her part of their international residency program.

"I think we were the first ones to discover this incredible artist," says director Wayne Lawson. "We stayed with the talent and watched her grow."

When Robinson received the council's Visual Arts Travel Fellowship in the summer of 1998 and stayed a month in Israel, it was an extraordinary experience for all.

"You have to picture this 20-pound woman with all these piercings sitting on a little stool in front of the (wailing) wall, staring," says Lawson. "All the time she is thinking of home - in the largest sense of the word. She was in an area of Hasidic Jews. When they got to know her they gave her ties and used material to include in her work. Here was this strange creature from another land who produced the most gorgeous and insightful pieces on their home."

The Israel body of work is included in "Journeys." The Columbus portion of this experience became the Doll House.

The Doll House sprouts up just behind Robinson's house. With its doors closed, it looks like a potting shed. But when the doors are opened, it's a dead drop down a rabbit hole to another world inhabited by hogmawg heads and bodies, a homemade spinning wheel, bags of fabric, a door in the process of being carved, a loom, a discarded television, hats, stools, baskets, boxes and toys.

This is where you can see the interconnectedness of her work. In fact, when the Columbus museum mounted the retrospective of her work, it re-created the Doll House to give visitors a glimpse into the life, heart and process of the artist.

Next year she will have her first solo show in another country - 50-75 pieces at the National Museum in Santiago, Chile. It will be the museum's first exhibition of an African-American artist and its first solo show.

"I feel blessed that other people are appreciative of what I do and put the pieces in private collections for the future, which is what the work is about."


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