By Sylvia and Kenneth Marantz
Aminah Robinson was born and raised in Columbus, Ohio, in an area of the city where African Americans have lived for many years, and which now lives on in her mixed-media art. From her father came her love of books, her drive to fashion sculpture from found materials, and the idea of incorporating music boxes that play spirituals into her art. Growing up, Robinson helped her mother with sewing, work she “hated” at the time, but now her creations incorporate fabric, buttons, and thread. Yet it was the time she spent with Elijah Pierce, a Columbus barber and folk artist, that had the greatest influence on her, particularly the spiritual connections they both felt in their creations.
Robinson’s friendship with Pierce indirectly started her career as a children’s book illustrator. Robinson had been creating her own books since she was three years old, but in 1992, she and Michael J. Rosen collaborated on Elijah’s Angel (Harcourt, 1992), an autobiographical picture book about a friendship between a Jewish boy (Rosen as a child) and an elderly black man (Pierce). Since then, she has illustrated such children’s books as Mem Fox’s Sophie (Harcourt, 1994), about the love between a grandfather and granddaughter, and Evelyn Coleman’s To Be a Drum (Albert Whitman, 1998), a dramatic, rhythmic telling of African American history. Below are some comments about the inspirations and motivations behind her work.
SM & KM: We’ve read that your home and studio are filled with the materials you use to create your work. How do you come by these things?
Robinson: The buttons and other bits come in all the time from many people. Some of the quilting came from my great aunt, and it’s precious. Every string, every strip, every thread is very precious. These things bring another layer of community. They no longer are personal things, personally conceived. They become communal. My pieces are never finished. I will work on my art throughout my lifetime. It’s like tending to a garden, keeping in touch with those who are no longer here.
SM & KM: How did you enter the world of children’s publishing?
Robinson: Michael J. Rosen is the one who really started me on picture books. I never in my life thought I would publish a real book. Elijah’s Angel was the first one. Normally illustrators and writers who know each other do not collaborate. It’s always the art director who is responsible for the illustrator and the editor who is responsible for the writer, and the writer and illustrator never even meet. But Michael is the reason why I was able to make real books.
SM & KM: Do you have any say in what manuscripts you illustrate?
Robinson: I never choose a manuscript. The publishers just have a manuscript that they choose to send me. I’ve been fortunate, because I’ve met all the authors I’ve worked with. To Be a Drum’s Evelyn Coleman just left about 3 weeks ago. We became great friends. When I first read her manuscript I responded immediately.
SM & KM: How do you approach a manuscript you’ve been asked to illustrate?
Robinson: When I first read a manuscript, just one time, I automatically know what must be done if I am to work on it. It’s not just sitting down and illustrating some things. It’s layers of work. People don’t know what is involved in creating one book. There are absolutely layers of work.
Every time I do a new published work it’s like starting all over again. I start with the layers. There’s a layer of pencil drawing. Then I add a little color. There are about 10 layers in all. To Be a Drum, Evelyn’s story, is beautiful, but she doesn’t bring in specific people or places. I make it a personal experience, and what I do is bring in Columbus, Ohio. Because that is the place I come from.
SM & KM: Do all of the books you’ve worked on contain autobiographical elements?
Robinson: Yes, for instance, at the time Sophie by Mem Fox came in, my son had just died. He was 27 years old when he took his life. That story was about my father and me; that’s who those people are in the book. I always have my own stories. It’s one thing to understand a story; it’s another to see it in a personal way.
SM & KM: We’ve read that some of the characters in your art come from the stories your uncle Alvin passed on to you.
Robinson: I felt at a very young age that his stories were very important, and I still feel that way. I’ve always carried sketchbooks with me, so every story is written down. The Blackberry Patch was a community in Columbus that they began to level so they could build Poindexter Village, one of the first federally funded metropolitan housing projects in the country. A lot of my stories, and characters, come out of the Blackberry Patch. I did not know these people personally, but my uncle had described them so well, and some I grew up with, like the Crow Man, the Rag Man, the Vegetable Man. In 1940, I was born, and Poindexter Village was open to its first people. So, many of the children of the Blackberry Patch raised their families in Poindexter Village on the same land, in the same culture. Although the structure of the place has changed, the culture hasn’t, and really not the people, because it overflows from one generation to another.
SM & KM: How do you feel seeing your work exhibited?
Robinson: It really makes me nervous. It is no longer a thing we call “art;” it’s living, breathing, evolving . . . It’s the spirits who have been here and are gone.
Sylvia Marantz is a retired children’s librarian and a regular volunteer at Norwich School’s library, and Kenneth Marantz is a professor emeritus in art education at Ohio State University.
This article orginally appeared in the January 2004 (vol. 13, no. 3)