Shelbi Toone shines spotlight on East Side with 'Aminah Is My Art Teacher'

The Columbus-born artist and historian will bring her expansive project to life with the help of a fellowship from the Greater Columbus Arts Council

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
(From left to right) Mary Helen, Richard "Duarte" Brown, Queen Brooks, Janet George and Shelbi Toone.

Shelbi “shel10” Toone is acutely aware of how quickly Columbus can pave over its cultural history.

Years ago, Toone said the city named a park at the corner of Parsons Avenue and Broad Street for her grandfather, James Roseboro, a member of the 1954 Ohio State National Championship team who went on to become the third Black member to serve on City Council. “And due to years of change, and buildings being bought or put up, the park is gone now,” Toone said in a late April interview in a King-Lincoln coffee shop. “And the sign sits in my grandmother’s house at Eastgate.”

Toone’s upbringing has helped fuel a preservationist streak deeply entwined within the DNA of her current undertaking: “Aminah Is My Art Teacher,” a multi-pronged arts project for which she recently received a Neighborhood Arts Connection fellowship from the Greater Columbus Arts Council, and which will consist of a collaborative art piece, an art talk and a series of art books. Collectively with these pieces, Toone hopes to better document the full constellation of artists who have lived and practiced on the Near East Side, including the likes of Queen Brooks and Richard “Duarte” Brown, among numerous others both past and present.

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“A lot of it is my passion for preserving legacy,” said Toone, who worked alongside Brooks and Duarte as a master teaching artist beginning in 2014, instructing youth throughout the city. “I’m a part of a rich history, and Columbus is changing, but it’s important we don’t bury the community that was here in trying to build the community we think we need. … These are just small, baby steps to make sure people understand the importance and the legacy of this community. Mount Vernon and Long Street, the long history of these streets, and all the way down to Poindexter Village on Champion. I mean, the legacy is big, but it’s also changing at a fast pace.”

As one example, Toone pointed to the murals of artist Walt “Wali” Neal, whose works have almost completely erased in the ongoing push to tear down and rebuild.

While Toone’s community project is named for Aminah Robinson, the late artist is but one in the galaxy she hopes to capture, embracing the power of Robinson’s name as a way to draw more attention to East Side artists both past and present.

“I remember I was working on a project for Easton, and they were like, ‘Yeah, we want to do an Aminah Robinson piece.’ And we were like, ‘At Easton? There are 1,000 other things we can do and you want an Aminah Robinson piece?’” Toone said. “So, it was like, what about Walt Neal? ‘Who’s Walt Neal?’ OK, let me educate you. It’s making sure we tell our stories right, and not letting the new politics of things wash out that history.

“Even when we talk about the Black art scene, a lot of the Black art scene has always been birthed from the Near East Side. And so, ‘Aminah Is My Art Teacher’ is me wanting to shout it through a bullhorn, like, ‘Hey, Aminah is just one of them. And if you pay attention, she’s trying to tell you about all of these other people. I mean, Aminah is a rock star now, but she can’t be a rock star without Elijah Pierce, and without Kojo [Kamau]. … There are a lot of people and stories who helped pave the way.”

Many of these names will all be enshrined within the communal art piece, which will be on display during the Juneteenth celebration on Mount Vernon Avenue, where Queen Brooks will lead community members in creating remembrance sticks meant to help support the artwork, which will be interlaced with names such as Smokey Brown, Walt Neal and Elijah Pierce, among others.

More:‘A shining moment’: ACE Gallery’s lasting legacy on Black art in Columbus

In a way, Toone’s arts fellowship is the perfect convergence of the skills she’s developed in careers both past (she served as the community programs manager for Ohio Alliance for Arts Education and executive director for All People Arts, an art gallery on the South Side) and present (she currently works as the project manager for Poindexter Village Museum and Cultural Center, a part of Ohio History Connection), linking both her love for art and for history.

“In my current role [at Poindexter Village], our main focus is preserving all of that story that we can at this point, so it’s a big part of who I am, and I think the fellowship speaks to the overall work that I’m in, and the overall work that I do,” Toone said. “What ‘Aminah Is My Art Teacher’ is saying is that if you pay attention and you read and you look at the art and see what Aminah was actually trying to show you, there’s so much more you can learn. It’s not just her art skills, but history. And not just history, but storytelling, and all of the different layers to how you can tell stories. There are just endless things you can pull from her.”