In a 2015 article, The Columbus Dispatch celebrated Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson’s 75th birthday, dedicating the opening and closing paragraphs to the state of her home. Her kitchen is dominated by an ever-evolving sculpture comprising coffee jars, sticks, clothespins, and music boxes. The living room was filled with a lengthy table that would hold works she dubbed “RagGonNons” (as they went on and on); here sat a fabric scroll piece she had been working on and reworking since 1958. Robinson, who passed away in 2015, lived in the home on Sunbury Road for 40-plus years, having moved in with her son Sydney in 1974. Her artistic touch graced every interior surface, transforming each room into a sanctuary for her extensive collection of journals and always ongoing projects.
In 2004, Robinson received a MacArthur Foundation (frequently called the “genius grant”). They recognized her as a “Folk artist, storyteller, and visual historian” who joyously commemorated her childhood neighborhood, Poindexter Village in Columbus, Ohio, and the journeys that define her extensive travels (Africa, New York City, Georgia, Israel, Chile). She was passionate about learning local and regional history at the Columbus Metropolitan Library, and her artwork mirrored the narratives passed down by her elders and community members. She found grandeur in the simplest of objects and everyday tasks. Everything could be art.
When Robinson passed on in 2015, she left her entire estate, encompassing her residence, artworks, vast library, personal belongings, and even her Chihuahua, Baby, to the Columbus Museum of Art. It took five years to sort through the enormous amount of art artifacts and stories that lived there for so long, to categorize it all, and relocate it to a museum-quality humidity-controlled storage facility. As part of The Aminah Robinson Legacy Endowment and Resource Fund, the Museum spent $200,000 on renovations, converting the house into an artist residency site while maintaining and upholding her indomitable spirit. The thrilling feeling one gets when approaching a home like this. How the imagination can run wild when you just cannot wait to see what’s on the other side of the door. So many museums would screw this task up. I’m still unsure how they walked such a fine line, but the Columbus Museum of Art accomplished the makeover without losing Robinson’s magic.
Meticulous efforts were made to conserve embellishments in the studio, the kitchen floor mosaic, paintings on the kitchen cabinets, and notes scrawled by numerous guests on the walls. One necessary change involved the replacement of carved and painted doors that had suffered water damage from being exposed to the elements. New doors were covered in replica vinyl, indistinguishable from the original when viewed from the street.
Once you pass through that threshold and step into the entryway, you are greeted by hundreds of hand-painted clothespins that frame the wall. Below is a low leather stool painted to tell a tale from Poindexter Village, the housing project where Robinson grew up, also said to be the first (or one of the first) housing projects in the US. And from there, you are off. It’s a space where creativity lives on in perpetuity. Where visiting artists work side-by-side with the fever, the spirit, the nurturing environment, the arms open invitation to experiment that remains and radiates throughout the home.
It would be easy to lose yourself in the living room, which doubled as a sanctuary dedicated to her pursuit of artistic knowledge and inspiration. The extensive art book library, meticulously marked and dog-eared, read and re-read, and her numerous journals. As exciting as this room was, it was the kitchen that was calling my name. Subsiding primarily on a diet of cigarettes and coffee, she didn’t have much need for the kitchen in a traditional sense. An old and adapted family recipe was the most that was cooked up, something she called hogmawg, a sculptural substance crafted from pig grease, mud, homemade dyes, and glue. The unique material imparted fossilized quality to her sculptures.
One notable excavation revealed the unruly sculpture, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” initially crafted for an exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum. Having outgrown the home’s door frames, transporting it to New York required cutting a hole in the roof. Upon removal to the Columbus Museum, a detailed mosaic was unveiled, incorporating various shapes, colors, and styles, along with embedded items such as stamps, thimbles, buttons, an ashtray, and even a collection of baby teeth from her son’s youth. The repurposed kitchen cabinet doors featured elegant line paintings of watchful faces, characteristic ciphers, and meandering limbs.
Among the aspects I particularly admire about the Columbus Museum of Art’s stewardship of Aminah Robinson’s legacy is their decision not to transform the home into a branch of the Museum. Instead, they hired a dedicated curator who intimately knew and loved Robinson’s work, and who was driven to share it with the world. What they’ve created is an opportunity to peek behind the curtain, the extended labels, the stark white walls, and complete the picture. What they’ve created is a genuine gift, offering us the rare opportunity to step into the world of an artistic genius, to let her magic envelop us.