Sunlight from three walls worth of windows illuminated the hardwood floors. Two books of African American art sat on a small wooden desk. A table, chair and houseplant were opposite the desk.
On a recent midmorning, the front room of celebrated Columbus artist Aminah Robinson’s former house felt warm and inviting, a place where one could sit and sip coffee — and perhaps write or draw or paint.
And that’s exactly what Columbus Museum of Art officials hope will happen after they spent $200,000 to renovate the home, 791 Sunbury Road in Columbus’ Shepard neighborhood.
The project was completed in June, and an artist in residence is scheduled to move in next summer.
Robinson famously painted, sculpted and worked in fabrics and found materials, and a contemporary artist living in her house could find inspiration in dozens of works she had left behind, including:
* Front doors covered in a vinyl replica of the large, colorful mural of faces and hands that Robinson carved in the originals (removed due to water damage)
* An entryway whose walls are lined high with a border of hundreds of painted clothespins
* Walls of several rooms containing Robinson’s flowing black-painted words: “One Day in the History of Columbus, Ohio,” or “Writing Room, Quiet”
When Robinson died in 2015 at age 75, she left her estate — including the two-bedroom house — to the art museum. Officials there, in consultation with a community committee, decided to renovate the house and open it up for an artist-in-residence program.
The trick was to complete the project without destroying the charm of the 1920s home where Robinson lived and worked since 1974. It was full of decades worth of her unique creations.
“We wanted to create a space that had a high level of functionality while preserving the essence of who Aminah was,” said Aaron McDaniel, principal at Blueprint Investments LLC, the Columbus company that handled the renovation. “I think we were able to achieve that.”
The project, funded by a $200,000 grant from the Columbus Foundation, was completed in June. On July 31, the art museum presented the house to the public in a virtual “Housewarming and Ribbon Cutting” and tour.
Getting the house in shape was not easy.
Robinson was famous for constantly working on new projects while also adding to old ones. She called her trademark fabric quilts “RagGonNon” because they went on and on.
One removed was “Themba,” which was 118 feet long and weighed about 200 pounds.
Museum officials spent a long time going through Robinson’s art and extensive book collection, cataloging and preserving it all.
“If you’ve had a parent or grandparent who passed away and you had to go through their belongings, just multiply that by 10 or 20 times,” said Carole Genshaft, a museum curator, who estimated the haul included 75 boxes of books and 150 notebooks Robinson had used as journals. “There was just a lot of stuff, and it was all important.”
Genshaft and Deidre Hamlar have co-curated an exhibition composed entirely of what was in Robinson’s house. It’s titled “Raggin On” and will open at the art museum in November.
After the contents were removed, the house was modernized. That included overhauling both bedrooms, as Robinson had largely used them for storage while sleeping on her couch, Genshaft said.
The one bathroom was updated, and another full bath was added. Robinson’s small upstairs writing room was cleaned up but remains.
In the kitchen, a sprawling sculpture titled “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” was removed from the middle of the floor, revealing an intricate mosaic made mostly of tile but also embedded with such items as buttons and stamps and even several baby teeth from Robinson’s son, Sydney.
And in the back of the house is a large, airy studio added in 2007 after she won a $500,000 grant in 2004 from the MacArthur Foundation (known commonly as a “genius grant”). Robinson called that space her sanctuary.
The first artist in residence, Jonathan Payne, from Memphis, Tennessee, originally was going to move in by August. The COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic has delayed that until next summer.
In the meantime, Columbus artist Bryan Moss will move into the house and serve as a caretaker, or “house manager” officially.
Moss, 39, has worked at the art museum in various capacities since 2001 and was mentored by Robinson.
“(The appointment as manager) is something I hold really dear,” Moss said. “I have to get acclimated to the space and not disrespect the spirit of Aminah’s presence. It’s a very sacred place.”
Two of Robinson’s nieces, Debbie Ubamadu of Los Angeles and Diedre Herd, a resident of Columbus’ Driving Park neighborhood, said they have fond memories of visiting their Aunt Aminah’s house and its unusual contents.
Herd said it was important to her aunt that her art and legacy be preserved and passed on to future generations. She said she thinks having artists living and working in her old home would have pleased Robinson.
“I think she would be so overjoyed and thrilled with that, the idea of passing it on,” Herd said.