One Day in History: The Legacy of Aminah Robinson
Born in 1940, Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson once said, “I began drawing at the age of three. My father would give me wood to paint on and paint in little enamel tins. My studio was under my bed … I never had any doubt in my mind about being an artist.” As a young girl, Robinson learned weaving and needlework from her mother, and the art of making homemade books using “hogmawg,” a mixture of mud, clay, twigs, lime, animal grease, and glue from her father.
These artistic practices became the foundation of Robinson’s career building a multi-disciplinary style that included sculptures, rag paintings, drawings, and books focused on her ancestors and the Black community. As her New York Times obituary read, “she believed that life for her people in America was an act of near superhuman perseverance, and she was determined to capture that history in every medium she could.”
Robinson spent the first part of her life at Poindexter Village in Columbus, Ohio. She attended art classes at what was the Columbus Art School, now Columbus College of Art and Design, on Saturdays before attending full time after graduation. In 1974, she moved with her son, Sydney, to a home in the Shepard community where she lived and worked until she died in 2015.
It is this home—bequeathed to the Columbus Museum of Art (CMA) after Robinson’s death—that was added in 2023 as a new member in the affiliate category of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Historic Artists' Homes and Studios (HAHS) program. Today the Aminah Robinson House serves as a space of creativity for Black artists and writers from Columbus and beyond.
RagGonNon: Aminah Robinson, A Visual Storyteller
When Aminah Robinson received the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship in 2004, her work was described as “Homeric” alluding to the epic nature of her work—both in terms of “content, quantity, and scale.”
Deidre Hamlar, the director of the Aminah Robinson Legacy Project at the Columbus Museum of Art, said, “It is awe inspiring how prolific and focused Aminah was in her endeavors.”
Two of Robinson’s public art pieces—collectively called RagGonNon—are on display at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati. They are illustrative of Robinson’s philosophy of using a variety of materials and textures to tell a story through art. Robinson developed the term RagGonNon to describe this complex artform that “rags on and on” and which incorporates found objects, buttons, beads, music boxes, cloth, and more applied with delicate needlework.
The two pieces—Journey’s I and Journey’s II (22’ x 15’ and 22’ x 17’ respectively)— at the Freedom Center share Robinson’s family history and took over thirty years to complete
Hamlar said, “One of Aminah's goals was for her work to bid to the future. RagGonNons are timeless, in that where her work ends, she envisioned others adding to it continually through their interpretations.”
Excavating the Aminah Robinson House
When CMA acquired the house in 2015, co-curators Carole Genshaft and Hamlar faced the challenge of building an exhibition based on a cache of never seen works that “illuminated Aminah’s personal story, the history of Columbus’s Black community, and her vast travels.” As she documented those stories in various forms throughout the house, Hamlar continued, “we literally excavated it.”
As Hamlar described, the home itself was a work of art. Like archaeologists, they slowly removed and stripped the space carefully cataloging every item—and where each piece was located—before they brought select furniture, art, and ephemera back in, so, said Hamlar, “that artists who would come to live and work there might experience as much of Aminah’s spirit as possible.” Not only did this house include her ever-in-progress artworks, it also included art and objects she collected, hundreds of books (that she annotated), files, clippings, manuscripts, and 125 illustrated journals—a practice that she picked up at the age of twelve after learning about the notebooks of notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci.
The Aminah Robinson Legacy Project at the Columbus Museum of Art is focused on honoring Robinson’s legacy through exhibitions, residencies and fellowships, a resource center and library, building an endowment to support programs, scholars, and a study collection of art and writing from Black artists and writers inspired by living and working in the Aminah Robinson House.
Creating a Source for Inspiration
“When I bring people in the house, [I ask] so what do you feel? Are you feeling her?” said Hamlar, describing what they want visiting and local artists to sense when they first step into what is now the Aminah Robinson House.
Starting in 2020, with support from the Greater Columbus Arts Council, the house became a place where artists in residence and local artists came to be inspired. In 2022 they expanded even further, adding a writer’s residency to the mix.
As Hamlar said, “the amount of research that she did for her work was evident in just taking the books off the shelves and seeing that they were dogeared and underlined and those particular stories and that history and that research she shared in visual and written form … We were so inspired by the amount of her writing we uncovered in the house that we decided to create a writer's residency.”
The first recipient of the writer’s residency, Darlene Taylor, is a writer and a lecturer at Howard University in Washington, D.C. Taylor describes “when I got to the house, I could feel her touch. There are carvings in the doors, they're painted in the kitchen on the cabinets, ‘there's painted profiles and then there's this expression across the kitchen wall that says, “one day in history”. That phrase connected to me. For me, that idea of that lingering presence of the people before in a place. And with Aminah, it's on the wall, it's in the tile, on the floor, it's on the doors.”
In describing her residency experience, Taylor explained how she would gain inspiration from different areas depending on the time of day. “I don’t imagine I could have done this work without the encouragement that came from the studio. It was a safe space that called me to create.”
She continued, “I sat in the quiet in Aminah’s house and crafted my visual verse stories. I created nine works, and like Aminah, I understand that there are stories that haven’t been told but need to be, and I’m driven to write them with pen and needle.”
Aminah Robinson’s Enduring Legacy
Taylor’s experience is an example of why the Aminah Robinson House is now a part of the HAHS network. The new affiliate membership is for sites just like this that are just starting the work to build out programming that honors the artist’s story. Hamlar said, “It is so satisfying to know if we want to, we can reach out to an institution for support, for visibility, for credibility.”
Valerie Balint, director of HAHS, agreed, “Sites and projects like the Aminah Robinson House and Legacy Project beautifully illustrate the reason we created the new affiliate category in 2022. While HAHS is excited to provide peer support and guidance as programming continues to evolve here—we know that we have much to learn from them as well, as a site of more recent artistic legacy.” She added, “and the power of place including tangible touchstones back to Aminah’s creativity, so eloquently referenced by Deidre and Darlene, capture the very essence of what every site in the HAHS network has to offer.”
For those who walk through those doors, they will be experiencing more than Robinson’s home. They will be in the presence of her very soul. As Robinson is quoted in the catalog for the 2021 exhibition, “when memory dwells deep in the timelessness of Home … Whenever I leave my home to visit in another place—I carry in my soul the spirit of home—it moves me wherever I go.”
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