The Columbus Museum of Art has restored Aminah Robinson's creative sanctuary, removing some of the clutter but not the unique spirit.
The destruction of artist Elijah Pierce’s barbershop is perhaps the greatest art crime in the history of Columbus.
My mother took me to see the famous woodcarver’s tonsorium-cum-gallery on East Long Street when I was a child. I had shown some interest in art, drawing to convey ideas because I had not yet learned the power of language. Pierce was still alive then, sitting in his cutting chair, quiet and shamanic. The walls and counters were covered in carvings and paintings, all of them drenched with spiritualism or ironic hopefulness. I was overwhelmed by the experience, unable to speak to the artist when prodded by my mother. The visit changed my life. I did not become a visual artist, but being in a space where creation happened—owning it, curating it, filling it until it changed the energy of a space—was a powerful lesson.
When Columbus State Community College razed the barbershop to make room for a parking garage, everyone knew the demolition was legal but wrong: the city powers, the arts community, the people who did it. Many forces have combined over the years to ensure the same thing does not happen to the legacy of Aminah Robinson, none more directly than Robinson herself. The winner of a 2004 MacArthur Foundation genius grant, Robinson left her home and its contents to the Columbus Museum of Art upon her passing in 2015—a monumental gift but a bounty with purpose. She operated under a philosophy she referred to as “raggin’ on.” Its core principle was communal interrogation: Her creative endeavors would never truly be complete because those who engaged with them would add new perspective—and thus life and meaning—to the work.Like what you’re reading? Subscribe to our weekly newsletters.
The conversion of her home into the site of an artist residency is fully in line with her personal and creative values. And in connection with that project, the museum will open in November a new Robinson exhibition, the first major one since her death. Appropriately, it’s titled Raggin’ On: The Art of Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson’s House and Journals. (Full disclosure: The CMA has commissioned me to write and perform a series of poems about Robinson’s work that will be presented on opening night.)
In the 40-plus years Robinson lived at 791 Sunbury Road, she weaponized the house against boredom. In the Southern fashion, the front yard is guarded by bottle trees, set out to keep evil spirits at bay. It is an appropriate spiritual security system for an art sanctuary. Entering the front porch confers a warmth, with its painted and carved front doors that can be seen from the street. The living room has had its original paneling and flooring restored, and the walls still have the signatures and notes written by visitors and Robinson herself.
No interior surface was safe from her brush, no room shielded from becoming a vault for her many journals, annotated books and works in progress. The walls and archways bear her characteristic hieroglyphs of winding limbs and peering faces, texts of captured moments and memories emblazoned on cabinets and archways. She didn’t cook much, so the kitchen became an extension of her work. She used the stove to cook homemade adhesives instead of dinner. She slept on her couch, leaving the two bedrooms upstairs to be consumed with the materials of her work, books and art in progress. Robinson brought Africa to the East Side, dragged Columbus’ historically razed Black neighborhoods into the future, showered her work with discovered objects and the flotsam of the world.
It would be impossible to gentrify Robinson’s house based on her kitchen alone—a bulwark of anti-flipping, embedded deeply with her work. You can’t just re-tile a floor that has a great artist’s son’s baby teeth in it. To Robinson, a dining room table would only take up space where more art could be created. The floors still bear her glazed pastiche of paint splatters and knick-knacks. Why waste perfectly good work space on eating?
The second floor was almost entirely redone and feels more like an Aminah Robinson Airbnb, save for one spot: her writing room. Not much bigger than a walk-in closet, the space is where she would go to journal or listen to music, and is the space most left in its original state. Going through the records on hand (again, a fraction of her original miscellany), I noted a nice blend of Beethoven, Dvorak, Ellington and Scott-Heron. The art in the room consists mainly of the work of other artists she acquired or traded with. Jammed with displays of her paintbrushes, quill pens and thimbles, it is the room that has the greatest impact on a visitor, that feels most like a creative spirit’s place of power.
Robinson’s house is not a museum, and even under the best of conditions would make a poor one. Every picture one ever saw of Robinson in her home had her surrounded by the jetsam of her travels, interests and work: books and materials hovering ever in reach in case inspiration overtook her. Such labyrinthine collections are unsustainable in a shared living arrangement. The good news is that the power of the house isn’t in archiving things, but in what it can continue to create.
Multiple arts organizations, a community committee and other funding sources combined efforts to bring the house functionally into the 21st century, but, more importantly, to the starting gate of a new mission. The house’s charge in its second life isn’t to be an immersive experience; for every book left in the house whose pages she dog-eared, wrote on and otherwise stamped with her curiosity, the museum holds 50 more. As a residency space for visiting artists, there is more than enough of the Aminah magic left behind to inspire, effectively transforming the home into a creative engine. The house is different than when she lived in it—more open, less filled with the stuff of her life and imagination—yet is still very much her residence, more an infusion of her life than a distillation. In Thurber House, you feel ghosts. In Robinson’s house, you feel a spirit.
In other excavations we would resign the discovery of, say, a painted jug to a cultural artifact with artistic implications. Where does the stuff of life stop and art begin? It is a profound question that every curator must face, and that Robinson’s home is, in Columbus, uniquely poised to answer. We have an opportunity as a community to unpack that question, juxtaposing the findings of the museum with the history of ourselves. When CMA’s exhibition opens in November, will the curators have claimed as art that which my many Black aunts used as ashtrays? Is Robinson’s kitchen an art installation? What does the home of such genius reveal to us about the nature of art? Thanks to the efforts to not only restore but confer upon the house a new creative purpose, we have our lifetimes to figure it out. Robinson gifted Columbus with a proper crown jewel. Here is hoping we use it to both reflect and inspire.