Columbus artist Aminah Robinson went from a single mother on welfare to a talent whose powerful work sells for thousands and is praised around the world. Yet she still lives frugally, works tirelessly and cares only about penetrating spirits
Her voice is slow and rich, almost lyrical, as if every thought she shares is a well-composed song, written by a woman with guts and gumption, who has weathered welfare lines and suffered the heartache of losing a child-her only one.
It's like Aminah Robinson knows a secret-a big one-and if you listen intently enough, she may whisper it. Or did she already?
Sitting in a Bexley gallery among her vibrant multimedia works of art, sipping coffee as she talks about a life that seems almost unreal, the 71-year-old Columbus legend is, quite simply, mesmerizing.
She looks the part, too-confident bald head, five gold hoops dangling from each ear, a gold stud pierced into her nose, and giant, wise eyes that tell you humbly but immediately that they have seen more than you.
Robinson spent most of her life making less than $5 an hour, raising her son as a single mother in a modest East Side house, sleeping little and using anything she could-sticks, buttons, neckties, homemade paper-to create.
Her works, whether black-and-white sketches or colorful mixed-media sculptures done on actual doors, tell stories. Some are about the neighborhood where she was raised, filled with real-life characters like Crowman and Chickenfoot woman. Others are about people like her Aunt Cornelia, who was captured in Africa and sent to America as a slave. She works on them for years, even decades, in her bedroom and living room and kitchen. She needs to share, to teach, and she needs to do it powerfully.
"There is something so profound about her work," said Annegreth T. Nill, who has worked at several museums and helped curate Robinson's retrospective show at the Columbus Museum of Art. "When Picasso first saw African art, he was blown away by its power. And I think that somehow Aminah has that in her It's really religious art of a different kind."
Robinson didn't attract much attention until later in life. Now, her work is exhibited in the permanent collections of institutions like the Columbus Museum of Art and the Brooklyn Museum of Art.
Yet she is not, she maintains, an artist.
"Let me tell you what I am," she says, decisively. "I am a person who takes walks. That's all I do-making observational penetrations."
Translated? She watches life carefully, internalizes it philosophically and turns her feelings into art.
The results are powerful, as is Robinson herself, said Columbus College of Art & Design President Denny Griffith, a friend who used to buy buttons at flea markets and take them to Robinson.
"She's different in the same way a really, really spiritual person is," he said. "I kind of think of her as the local version of the Dalai Lama."
Robinson was only 3 when the pretend naps began.
The girl born Brenda Lynn lived on the East Side of Columbus with her parents and two sisters in Poindexter Village-one of the nation's first federally-funded apartment complexes.
When naptime struck, she would feign sleep, then climb out her bathroom window and run to Beatty Park Recreation Center. There, a woman named Mrs. Bray was like the god of Robinson's heaven. She walked from child to child, helping them craft creations from found objects and very quietly teaching about the composers whose music played in the room. There were no "projects," just creations.
"She would have just stuff all around for us to work with," Robinson said. "She would help each child with whatever vision he or she had."
It was like living in bliss, she said. And then, Mother would arrive.
"I promised I would never do that again-every day," Robinson said, laughing.
Her family-and community-recognized and encouraged her creativity. Her father taught her to make Hogmawg, a mix of mud, grease, glue, dyes and other items used to make sculptures. Her mother taught her to sew buttons onto cloth. Her uncle taught her to tell a good tale. She learned to dye, to spin, to make paper. "We never mentioned art," Robinson said. "It was a very unusual community that I grew up in. I will not say it was art. It was a way of life."
When Robinson graduated from East High School, she enrolled in what is now the Columbus College of Art & Design. "I loved it-absolutely loved it," she said. "That's when it became art."
Combining the skills passed down from family and the knowledge learned in school, she started quietly crafting giant, now-praised blanket-like creations she calls RagGonNons (rags that go on and on into the future). They became immensely complicated pieces made from colorful cloth, neckties, buttons and myriad other materials that took years-sometimes decades-to research and create. Like most of her art, they tell stories. And like all of her art, they come, in her words, "directly from the soul."
"You must take time with the work, with the lives of our ancestors, with the lives of those who were already here," she said. "The life of the community is very, very sacred."
After Robinson graduated from art school, she marched on Washington to listen to Martin Luther King, Jr. deliver his "I Have a Dream" speech. She married a man in the Air Force and moved to out-of-state bases. And she delivered her beloved son, Sydney Edward Robinson.
Soon, though, she and her husband separated, and Robinson returned to Columbus as a single mother. She embarked on what would become a nearly 20-year career with the Columbus Recreation and Parks department, working with children and adults in the city and supporting her son on less than $5 an hour. While she taught creative classes, her talents clearly went largely unappreciated, as on one evaluation, she said, she was given only eight of 40 points for artistic ability. She purchased a house near Poindexter Village but couldn't afford a bed. She twice found herself on welfare.
Still, she created. She slept three or four hours a night, then rose early to paint, draw and sculpt. She started projects on floors and countertops and doors. She made her own paper and gratefully used objects people would bring her for her creations.
In 1973, during one of Robinson's short welfare stints, the wife of a prominent local businessman became Robinson's first customer. She paid $75 for a drawing on linen called The Welfare Line. "And believe me," Robinson said, pausing, "that was a lot of money."
The local arts community took notice. By decade's end, thanks in part to The Columbus Foundation, Robinson traveled to Africa for a six-week group study. While others occasionally enjoyed the beach, she sketched so furiously that she quickly ran out of her supplies and ended up drawing on whatever she could find-hotel notepads, envelopes, anything. She produced 3,000 pieces on the journey.
She also was introduced to a holy man who gave her a spiritual name, Aminah. She thought little of it, she said, until she returned home and shared the story with her father. Aminah, she learned, was the middle name of her grandmother, aunt and cousin. She adopted it legally as her own.
Slowly, her work garnered accolades.
She exhibited it in a Cincinnati gallery, then an Akron museum. A local gallery-Hammond Harkins-began representing her work. The Ohio Arts Council gave her a grant to study in New York. And the Columbus Metropolitan Library Downtown branch commissioned a painting.
Finally, Robinson resigned from her city job. She was free to create at all hours.
When her son was very young, Robinson started making him "books"-tactile, complex wonders that tell stories of life she thought would be useful. She could not afford to buy him a college graduation gift, so she planned to give him the books. But they weren't quite finished.
That was OK, he said. He was proud of her.
A few years later, Sydney, who was "brilliant" but battled depression, took his own life at age 27.
Robinson was devastated. But, she said, "I couldn't give up. I had to continue on, not just for me, but for him."
She was granted another Ohio Arts Council residency, this time to Israel. The Columbus Museum of Art soon made several of her works part of its permanent collection. Then, in 2004, Robinson became front-page news when she was given a $500,000 no-strings-attached MacArthur Fellowship Genius Award.
"This has never been a career. It's been a way of life," she said. "A lot of people do not understand what it takes to create one piece. They don't understand that you didn't have any more paper and had to stop to create paper, or that you had to stop to create dye."
They're beginning, she said, to understand.
Barbara Brandt, a longtime local fundraiser and the board chair of the Columbus Council on World Affairs, has several of Robinson's pieces in her home.
"Every single thing I have of Aminah's continues to bring me joy and some sense of social responsibility," Brandt said. "I feel her spirit in my house-I really do."
One she greatly admires is a picture of a woman with disproportionately large hands-a consistent distinction in most of Robinson's work. "It looks like they could plant your soul," Brandt said, "and it could grow."
Today, Robinson's work starts at about $1,850 and lists for as much as $30,000.
Yet she continues living in the same East Side home she purchased more than 30 years ago. She still doesn't own a bed; there's no room, because art is everywhere. She sleeps a few hours a night on the couch, rises at 4 a.m., throws fresh paper on the floor, and, with a coffee mug in her left hand and a paintbrush in her right, creates. She can't even say how long she works. "I don't decide," she said. "God decides."
Her diet includes only fresh fruit, coffee, cigarettes, an occasional bite of broccoli and the fried chicken that friends bring by every now and then.
She had a cell phone once, but threw it out.
"She is a recluse pretty much," Nill said. "When you do get to her, she is wonderful and lively, but she preserves her privacy very strenuously in order to work. I don't think it's an anti-social thing, but she has her routine."
She's almost otherworldly, Nill said.
"I don't know whether you could call her religious-she's spiritual," she said. "We are all her children. We all can learn from her wisdom."
Marlana Hammond Keynes, co-owner of Hammond Harkins Galleries, is one of the few in the artist's inner circle. "It's so fascinating to talk with Aminah," she said. "Her views are always fresh, innovative. I love her imagination."
After keeping Sydney's books for several years, Robinson recently allowed the Toledo Museum of Art to have them for an exhibition titled "Voices That Taught Me How to Sing."
And she continues singing herself, in a way only she can.
"It's been a wonderful, wonderful, interesting life," Robinson said. "You never arrive. That's very immature if any artist ever says that. You wake up and say, 'Oh, another day to work!' "
She continued the thought with the quiet passion of a poet, the well-timed wording of a preacher.
"Just to see the dawn beckoning," she said, "that's the joy."
Because if she sees that dawn, she added, then she knows the work will continue.