Jana M. Cardwell records the past, keeps an eye on the future

The Columbus artist and most recent recipient of the Aminah Robinson Fellowship is finally ready to focus on herself following a life lived largely in service to others.
Jana M. Cardwell
Jana M. CardwellCourtesy the artist

In early January, Jana M. Cardwell spent her first day in the East Side home that once belonged to Aminah Robinson, taking time to absorb the energy within the space, as well as to converse with the late artist, whose presence, Cardwell said, still exists within the walls of the house.

“I have conversations, and when I come in, I talk to her and I tell her I’m ready to go, because I do believe she speaks here. Her essence is here. Her creativity is here,” Cardwell said in an early January interview at the home. “The first time I came here, I took my sketchbook with me, because I felt like if I didn’t bring it, Aminah would be like, ‘Where's your sketchbook?’ And then I walked around and sat in different rooms, and I started sketching, coming up with all of these ideas.”

Through the end of March, Cardwell will have unlimited access to Robinson’s home, the artist having recently been awarded the Aminah Robinson Fellowship, following in the footsteps of past winners such as Richard “Duarte” Brown and Beverly Whiteside, each of whom took radically different approaches to the residency. Brown, for one, embraced the space as though it were his own, filling the shelves with handmade figures and allowing his art to spill from the basement through the first-floor dining room and studio. Whiteside, in contrast, took a more reserved approach, carving out a small space in the studio at the rear of the home in which she could work.

Cardwell, for her part, said she has embraced the idea of expansion – not only in terms of how she plans to use the space but also in how it relates her craft, with plans to move beyond colored pencil and watercolor portraiture, experimenting with everything from sculpture to collage.

“When I first came in, I thought I would keep it minimal and just bring my sketchbook and a few other little things,” Cardwell said. “But then I thought about how Aminah spread out when she did her artwork, and how it all means something. And now I’m getting comfortable with not only bringing things into [the studio] to work but then also spreading into the dining room and into the living room and [upstairs] into the writing room. … Miss Deidre Hamler (Columbus Museum of Art’s curator at large) came in and she said, ‘You can work anywhere.’ And I was like, ‘Remember you said that…’”

Like Robinson before her, Cardwell is also an educator, having until recently taught art at Harvest Preparatory School and the Shepard School, sharing how she continually found inspiration in awakening students to the sense of possibility that exists within them. Now, after living a full life as a caretaker, Cardwell said she is ready to tap into that same sense within herself, giving priority to her own work for really the first time.

“Everybody will tell you I was always doing something else. I wasn’t doing my own artwork, and I wasn’t showing,” Cardwell said. “I would watch other people show, but I would say, ‘Well, I can’t do that right now.’ And I don’t have an excuse anymore. I can do it. Even though I hit 60, it’s okay. I can do it, because I’ve seen people start being artists at 80. I can do anything I need to do. Coming in here, being in this atmosphere, it’s almost like, yes, I’m just getting started.”

Growing up with undiagnosed dyslexia, Cardwell said she leaned into art from an early age, finding it easier to convey what she wanted to say with drawings, which occasionally turned up in places her parents wished they hadn’t, colored on walls and painted onto bedspreads. Oftentimes, Cardwell would sketch her surroundings, including the banana trees that dotted the landscape in the Philippines, where the family lived for three years – one in a series of moves brought about by her father’s military career. (Cardwell landed in Columbus permanently following her father's retirement from the service.)

Gradually, Cardwell said, she uncovered her voice as an artist through this running documentation, particularly as she began to draw the faces of relatives and neighbors as a means of recording her family history, comparing it with the way that Robinson so lovingly documented the people who moved within her own community. “Aminah, she recorded the neighborhood, and the things people did – the people who sold umbrellas, the people who repaired shoes – and I loved that, because I wouldn’t know that [past] if she didn’t record it,” Cardwell said.

“So, for me, it’s a way of recording my past,” the artist continued, pointing me toward a smattering of the self-described “characters” hung in the studio, who with their exaggerated features have helped keep the artist company in the early days of the residency. “This one is a cousin, who is someone from my childhood down in the valley in Cadiz, Ohio. And he’s no longer with us, but he was one of my older cousins. … For me, [these drawings] are a recording of what people go through, and the way we had to move, twist, reshape ourselves to get from where we were to where we end up. You have to evolve into the life that you’re in, and that shows up in all of us.”

Cardwell said she first met Robinson around 2012 during an event at the King Arts Complex, recalling how first words out of the elder’s mouth were to ask if Cardwell had brought her sketchbook with her – a way of holding the artist to account that Cardwell said continues to motivate. “I still hear Aminah say that you gotta eat, drink, dream, breathe and live your art,” she said. “And that’s where I want to be when I leave out of here.”

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