On heels of Aminah Robinson fellowship, Don Coulter re-centers his art and himself

Joel Oliphint
Columbus Alive
"I AM," a self-portrait in fabric by Don "DonCee" Coulter.

In February of 2020, Don “DonCee” Coulter drove to New York City, where the Westbeth Gallery included his fabric work in a group show, “The Gold Standard of Textile and Fiber Art.” Coulter got to the gallery’s address an hour early for his artist talk and pulled into a nearby parking garage. 

"The attendant was like, ‘I don't think you want to do this.’ I'm like, ‘What are you talking about? I need to park.’ He was like, ‘It’s $55 an hour,’” said Coulter, who looked around and saw rows of luxury cars. “He was like, ‘Hurry up and back up before somebody comes in.’” 

Coulter continued his search for elusive NYC street spots, eventually parking 11 blocks away and arriving half an hour late to the venue. While giving his artist talk, someone asked him about what awards he had won in his hometown of Columbus, but at the time, Coulter couldn’t point to any. Then he felt his phone buzzing, and when he looked down, the caller ID indicated it was someone from the Greater Columbus Arts Council (GCAC).  

More:Artist DonCee is cut from a different cloth

After the artist talk, Coulter stepped outside to listen to his voicemail and got the good news: He would be the first ever recipient of the Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson Fellowship, one of two programs from GCAC and the Columbus Museum of Art intended to “support African American, professional visual artists and honor the legacy of the beloved Columbus artist.” The fellowship came with a $15,000 award, along with community outreach programs in the Shepard neighborhood where Aminah Robinson once lived, as well as an opportunity to show his head-turning, multi-layered fabric pieces at a local gallery alongside Robinson’s artwork.

Then, in March of 2020, the pandemic hit. 

The fellowship was supposed to run from the beginning of March through May of last year, but everything came to a halt due to the spread of COVID-19. Hammond Harkins Galleries eventually scheduled an exhibition featuring the work of Robinson and Coulter, but Coulter estimates the show was pushed back five or six times in the last year. Finally, in mid-April of this year, Hammond Harkins opened “Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson: Masterworks," which will remain on view through early June.  

"It's overwhelming. You definitely feel honored, especially when I walk in and I'm seeing all this Aminah Robinson work, and then there's your piece right there. You kind of feel like you've arrived,” Coulter said. 

The gallery is featuring three of Coulter’s pieces in the exhibition, including a self-portrait titled “I AM,” depicting Coulter as a young man with his art supplies, but instead of holding a paintbrush and paints, Coulter grips an X-Acto knife and a palette covered in scraps of fabric — a reference to the way Coulter creates finely detailed portraits, nightclub scenes and cityscapes that can sometimes look like paintings from a distance, but upon closer inspection, are made entirely of colorful fabric.  

A list of names descends from the top right corner of “I AM”: Donald G. Coulter, Aminah Robinson, Elijah Pierce, William P. Coulter, Ernie Barnes, Walt Neil, George Coulter. “These are the people that influenced me as an artist,” said Coulter, who included his father, uncle and grandfather. “I am them, because they are part of me.” 

Working with the Shepard community, Coulter said he now better understands not just Robinson’s work, but also who she was personally. “You get a different perspective on who Aminah was — both sides of Aminah,” he said. 

Coulter has also seen his work shift during the last year as the pandemic claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, while at the same time the nation grappled with a refreshed racial justice movement after Minneapolis police murdered George Floyd. “I'm creating this piece now titled ‘The ’70s Groove,’ and my intentions for this piece was for it to be a fun-loving ode to the ’70s,” Coulter said. “But as everything is going on ... it's now filled with a lot of political and social justice messages.” 

While several national and international events featuring Coulter’s artwork were canceled or postponed during the pandemic, the past year also gave him more time to hunker down and work on his art, while at the same time allowing him to reflect on his experiences as a Black man. He thought about the death of Ahmaud Arbery, as well as the times Coulter himself has been stopped by police while jogging in Columbus neighborhoods. “I remember one incident, police pulled me over and said, ‘Why are you running?’” Coulter said. “I was like, ‘I’m trying to get some exercise.’ And I remember the officer said, ‘In this neighborhood, if we see you running, we have a right to pull you over.’” 

Coulter now lives in Dublin, which, before this past year, sometimes gave him a false sense of security. But the death of Arbery was a grim reminder of all the work yet to be done to counter violent racism in America. “I moved away from that neighborhood, and things were peaceful, but then everything came back to me, and I said to myself, ‘You can run, but that doesn't make the situation go away. You have to still be a part of the solution,’” Coulter said. “So this summer I made a commitment of just making sure to let my art speak for me.”