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Buttons, beads and bravado: Celebrating the simple joy in Aminah Robinson's art

Aminah Robinson in her home
Jeff Bates
Courtesy of the Columbus Museum of Art
Aminah Robinson in her home

Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson didn't quite understand. The phone rang in her small house in Columbus, Ohio and a voice mentioned something about her art ... an award...money. "Oh," Aminah said. "You want me to do a portrait of General MacArthur?"

That phone call was from the MacArthur Foundation, telling her that she was one of 2004's 'genius grant' winners. She would go on to tell this story about herself for years. Her friend, Columbus Museum of Art curator Carole Genshaft, says everyone was sure Aminah was kidding. A $500,000 dollar joke. But the MacArthur grant gave her security, attention and the chance to continue creating her avalanche of vivid, vibrant art works.

Folk artist, storyteller and visual historian, Robinson used her artwork to celebrate and memorialize the neighborhood of her childhood – Poindexter Village in Columbus, Ohio—and her journeys to and from her home. In drawings, paintings, sculpture, puppetry and music boxes, she reflected on themes of family and ancestry, and on the grandeur of simple objects and everyday tasks.

When she died in 2015 at age 75, she left her art-crammed house and estate to the Columbus Museum of Art. Their present exhibition is Raggin' On: The Art of Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson's House and Journals.

Robinson used fabric, needlepoint, paint, ink, charcoal, clay and found objects to create signature works on canvas and in three-dimensional construction. Not quilts, not paintings, they're Aminahs: no formal art world category for them. Fabrics and paper, hangings and scrolls, collages sewn with buttons, beads and bravado. They brighten your eye, and bring smiles to the day.

Aminah was a powerhouse of invention. Wall-to-wall art works. Some 150 journals. So prolific. She never stopped creating. Up at 4:30AM, worked until late into the night, very little sleep. She once said drawing was "like breathing." And making art was "a way of walking."

She loved her hometown, Columbus. Over the years, she adorned spaces all over town with her work: a mural for the downtown library, the convention center, hospitals, a theatre.

<em>A Street Called Home,</em> 1997 (Mixed media,29 x 89 1/2 in.)
/ Columbus Museum of Art, Museum Purchase with funds donated by Wolfe Associates, Inc.
Columbus Museum of Art, Museum Purchase with funds donated by Wolfe Associates, Inc.
A Street Called Home, 1997 (Mixed media,29 x 89 1/2 in.)

Aminah did meticulous research for each work. For A Street Called Home, curator Genshaft says the artist got old city directories, "found names of all the businesses and houses that had been on that street" when she was growing up, and showed them in this piece. Co-curator Deidre Hamlar says the street was the center of Black life in Columbus, "a comfort place for Aminah." In painting it, the artist "centers us in the history of a community," Hamlar says.

Her aim, Aminah often said, was to "make art that fills in the blank pages of African American history." The shops and houses in that painting — long gone — reclaim what once had been visible. "That's really the essence of her work," Hamlar says.

A very visible piece of African American history appears in this pen & ink/watercolor/cloth/paper/buttons/thread confection of the first Black U.S. President and his family.

<em>Bo Walking First Family through the Rose Garden</em> ,2007-2010 (Mixed media, 16x36 ¼in)
/ Columbus Museum of Art, Estate of the Artist
Columbus Museum of Art, Estate of the Artist
Bo Walking First Family through the Rose Garden ,2007-2010 (Mixed media, 16x36 ¼in)

That Bo is a real eagle scout, and I love that Michelle Obama's mother is there, too. There's lots of pink in Aminah's pride — and, as in most of her work, great cheer and good feeling. There's no rancor or bitterness. She's claiming a place for her people with joy, not protest.

The lack of resentment is interesting, because there were some rough times. Divorced and a single mother, she was on welfare for a while — to her shame. Her job teaching art for the Columbus Recreation and Parks Department paid a steady but modest salary. Her only child committed suicide at age 27. (She pulled out of grief with her art.) But inner strength and a happy childhood in a neighborhood she loved (segregated and safe from city prejudices) grounded her.

Curator Genshaft says the town loved Aminah, and she returned the affection. Lots of fans came to see her, and she enjoyed talking with them. Then she would close her door for weeks to work. "Home was like her sanctuary," Genshaft says.

That haven allowed her to focus on the work — which was crucial, because some pieces took years to complete. Some were so large she couldn't see them unless she rolled them out onto the driveway. She was a woman who knew how to work — had to work ("a way of walking"). And she honored work in her art.

Such a great drawing. The lady seems in a big hurry to deliver her gift — eggs "taken from the coop," curator Hamlar says. She looks delighted — can't wait to get there! The tradition was (still is!) to take something to a house that joy or tragedy has visited. The tradition also says to never return a basket empty. (Wonder what she'll get in return.) Notice how large the giver's hands are. She needs to be careful not to break an egg.

The teacher has enormous hands. Hands that know hard work. Genshaft tells the story of Aminah's visit to a classroom, where a young student asked why these hands are so large. With a pause, then great eloquence, the artist saluted the work hands do: growing our food, feeding us, praying, touching others, making art. Some of that describes Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson. She made art that touched many.

Art Where You're Atis an informal series showcasing online offerings at museums you may not be able to visit.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Nationally renowned broadcast journalist Susan Stamberg is a special correspondent for NPR.