At age 71, Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson’s advice to students and other artists is simple—though perhaps surprising, given the apparently effortless visual generosity of her work. “Just never give up,” she says. “Work very hard. It can be difficult, but even with the storms, and the sun, and the rain, the work continues. Even when no one understands you for years. It is not a career. It is not something to make money with. It’s about endearing one’s community with the light God has given you.”
And endear her community she has. Robinson is nationally acclaimed for her profound artistry, her storytelling abilities, her deep understanding of history, and her utter conviction regarding how individuals and institutions are interwoven in communities. But in her hometown of Columbus, she is beloved—and the feeling is mutual. “I grew up in a community, so the connection has always been there,” she says. “So much was given to me through the others in my family and community, and the institutions in Columbus. The reason why I am able to continue is because of that.”
Born in Columbus in 1940, Robinson grew up certain that she would be an artist. Her artistic development began at the age of three under her father’s guidance. In 1955, she began taking Saturday Morning Art Classes at CCAD (then the Columbus Art School), then formally enrolled as an undergraduate in 1957. She recalls, “I grew up with tradition, and the elders in my family made sure I received it. Then, in art school, that’s when it became art. I connected the two, and they just blended automatically.” She was given an honorary master’s degree in 1991 by then-President Joseph V. Canzani.
She attributes her renowned work ethic to her time at CCAD. “As a first- and second-year student, [you] carried 14 classes per semester. Fourteen classes! You had to work. Drawing, figure drawing, anatomy. It was law. I loved it.” These days, she rises at 4:00 a.m. to drink coffee and work on loosely painted studies, which she calls her “morning exercises.” At about 6:00 a.m. she turns to her more intensive bodies of work, continuing until 10:00 or 11:00 p.m., when she “rests.” (She never says “sleeps.”)
One of Robinson’s signature forms is the RagGonNon, which she began making while a second-year student at CCAD. RagGonNons are complex works, based in fabric but incorporating many other media, which continue to evolve over years, sometimes even decades. She describes them by saying, “It is community. It is work that comes out of a community, and it belongs to the community. That’s why it’s going to go on into the future.” One of the RagGonNons that she continues to develop (see photo) is so large that she says she has never seen the whole thing at one time. She unfolds portions to view while she creates, but it is layer upon layer of both history and hope.
In 2004, Robinson was (in her words) stunned to receive a MacArthur Fellowship, a no-strings-attached $500,000 award commonly known as the “genius grant.” The MacArthur Foundation described her work as “Homeric in content, quantity, and scale.”
Since then, her time has been very much in demand—but her lifelong discipline still serves her well. “At my age, I just say ‘no’ in a very nice way,” she says. “But before, I had to figure out different things, because nothing came between the work and me. It was [and] it is all I have to give to our future. I just feel it’s that important. There are so many bodies of work that I’ve produced since I was three, and it’s still ongoing. Hopefully it will inspire somebody, be helpful to young people, and give some hope to our future. That’s what I do.”
Published in print twice a year, CCAD’s IMAGE magazine shares stories about our creative community, whether here in Columbus or around the world—what we’re doing, thinking, and planning next. The IMAGE blog brings those stories online for transmission at the click of a mouse.