adopted a wait and see approach in the East Side home of late artist Aminah Robinson earlier this week.
Rather than arriving with sketchbooks, pencils and paints in hand, she brought along a bouquet of flowers, which she placed in a vase at the center of the dining room table, and the patience to sit for a spell to see what the space had to say to her.
“I need time to unwind in here,” said the Columbus native, who was born and raised on the Southeast Side. “I need to see what’s going on, first of all. And see what seat I can sit in for any period of time. … Then I have to think, now, where will I do any artwork? Because mine is really scrappy, and I cut scraps [of fabric] all of the time. But it’s also figuring out where I will feel most comfortable.”
In actuality, Whiteside’s early January foray in the home served as a reintroduction to the space, which she occasioned in the years after she first met Robinson in the mid-90s while working as a dance education specialist at Fair Avenue Arts Impact School. Indeed, one of Whiteside’s paintings – titled “Homegoing” and depicting the funeral of her great aunt – hangs in the living room of the house, purchased by Robinson from Whiteside at the latter’s first gallery show in Franklin Park.
“I’m standing there talking to somebody because we were getting ready to take the show down,” said Whiteside, who then recreated Robinson’s brusque stroll into the gallery. “And she looked up [at the painting] and said, ‘I want that,’ and then kept right on moving.”
Whiteside said Robinson's house overflowed with soul in the years she inhabited it, artwork packing every corner of the space to the point it was even embedded in the tiles of the kitchen floor. And while aspects of this past have been preserved, Whiteside said the home now feels more staged, as though each room should be offset by a velvet rope.
“I’m just so glad I got a chance to see her in this space, and to see how she treated this space, because she had art all over. And it was crazy, ooh, and when I say crazy I mean good crazy,” Whiteside said. “Now it feels like it’s built for people to come in and look around.”
During , Richard Duarte Brown countered the house’s museum-esque feel by filling it with his own creations, and loading the cabinets with handmade knickknacks. Whiteside, for her part, said she plans to leave things “as they are,” her interest focused less on the main living areas than the cavernous studio at the rear of the home, where she hoped to carve out a small space that could feel like hers, at least for a time.
As we moved into the studio, Whiteside soon discovered a small drafting table the ideal height for working, as well as a box of fabrics that once belonged to Robinson, materials which she received permission to use in the piece she plans to complete during the two-month residency.
“Ooh, look at this. Oooh!” she said as she pulled scraps of patterned fabrics from the plastic crate, her eyes widening. “I’m going to go through here and play around a little bit. I’m loving this. Look at this! … I can see [Aminah] touching this. I can see why she chose this. Isn’t this something?”
Whiteside traced her earliest interest in art to the years she taught at Fair Avenue, which forced her to consider the ways the different disciplines interacted. “We had music, art, drama, dance, and we would all commence together, and sometimes it would overlap,” said Whitesaid, whose paintings maintain the sense of movement she learned as a dancer, evident in details such as the swaying robes of the choir members in “Homegoing.”
Adhering to Robinson’s advice to “keep to the path” as an artist, Whiteside worked diligently, gradually learning to shrink the distance between the initial inspiration and her paintbrush. “The best ideas come, and they reveal themselves very quickly,” she said. “The ones where you have to go, ‘Oh, boy. Oh, no. Back to the drawing board!’ Those aren’t my best works. It’s the ones where I sit up all night, and each piece just keeps coming – wow, look at that! – and every line that I make goes right where I want it to go. It’s when everything is working cerebrally but also in the heart. It’s brewing at both levels.”
From Robinson, the artist also learned to embrace the flaws in her work. “Her paintings gave me a liberation that it didn’t have to be perfect,” Whiteside said. “Each finger didn’t have to be straight – and it wasn’t going to be anyway, the way I was going. But I didn’t have to be so boxed in. I could play. And that was freedom.”
Generally, Whiteside said she’s trying to relay a narrative in each piece, and it’s not unusual for a painting to originate as a few lines of text in her notebook. Some of these narratives can be grand, such as “Flowers for Clotilda,” which takes its inspiration from the last known slave ship to arrive in the United States. Others are comparatively intimate, such as “Bits of Honey,” which depicts the artist’s sister and is part of a series relaying scenes from Whiteside’s childhood.
“Part of ‘keeping to the path’ is telling stories,” Whiteside said. “Stories are our visual history. … It’s not just to make something pretty to have someone be like, ‘Oh, I like that.’ It’s to say something. That’s what ‘Homegoing’ is about. I’m telling you about my 96-year-old aunt who passed, and what happened on that day. Even at the funeral, honestly, I said, ‘I gotta record this. I gotta record that.’”
Continuing to thumb through the scraps of fabric collected by Robinson, in a home that once belonged to the late artist, Whiteside said that she was starting to find that initial spark of inspiration she hoped would propel her through the next two months, though it arrived amid questions about legacy and impact that somehow resonated even more heavily in that space.
“When I came in today, I said, ‘What am I going to say? What am I going to give back? What am I going to leave?’” Whiteside said. “I’ve got more years behind me than ahead of me. … I want what I do now to mean something. I want it to mean something.”