KEY WEST -- The little girl’s eyes look directly at you, making an instant connection. She’s standing in a cotton field, wearing an ankle-length dress with a burlap bag draped over her shoulder.
Four other black folks stand next to her, also looking directly at you, while a faceless white man oversees the backbreaking work in the far corner of the nearly life-size painting. But it’s difficult not to focus on the little girl.
“She is saying with her eyes: What in the hell am I doing here? I should be in school, but this is my plight,” said the artist, Avis Collins Robinson.
The little girl is Avis at 6, when she was growing up in a roach- and rat-infested house built on logs by slaves in the former slave settlement of Good Hope in Maryland.
Collins Robinson, a Harvard graduate and former high-ranking economist for the Environmental Protection Agency, knows that picking cotton in servitude also could have been her plight if she had been born in 1853. But she arrived in 1953 — albeit during a civil rights struggle she didn’t fully understand when she and her siblings integrated an elementary school and Catholic high school in Maryland.
“All I hope is this painting humanizes slavery and humanizes the human condition,” she said. “But I never thought anybody would see this.”
That changed last summer when she took a $15 art class to paint a nude model at The Studios of Key West. She casually showed staff some images of her art that she kept on her laptop.
Deputy director Elena Devers said everyone at The Studios was blown away. They talked Collins Robinson into letting them host her first major exhibit: Color & Cloth: African American Quilts & Portraits.
“I guess she has just been flying under the radar quietly, doing her own work for the sake of the work,” Devers said. “I think now she will start to get so much attention. It would be a tragedy if people didn’t get to see this.”
All of Collins Robinson’s paintings, as well as her colorful quilts, are deeply personal. They express the emotion that began pouring out of her 5½ years ago, following the death of her mother, during the historical 2008 presidential campaign and as a result of her realization that she should not ignore the reality that slaves picked cotton.
With faces in purples and oranges, in scraps of fabric and with lots of glitter, she showcases her deep appreciation and respect for her people — from nameless sharecroppers and maids to abolitionists Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass to Michael Jackson and Barack Obama.
As staff hung her large quilts and portraits in the 2,000-square-foot exhibit hall before the opening, a few people strolled inside to get a sneak peek. It was a weird feeling for Collins Robinson to have strangers look at the pieces.
“This is my historical record of my people,” she said. “This is me — my heart and my soul, and this makes me very uncomfortable to show it.”
Only one of her pieces is permanently on display, a commissioned portrait of Abraham Lincoln. It hangs in the lobby of Ford’s Theatre in Washington. And just twice before has she shown her work outside her Arlington, Va., home: Five quilts were shown on the Magnificent Mile in Chicago, and three were displayed at the Nelson Gallery at the University of California, Davis, where her “Sharecropper’s Masterpiece” was selected as one of the top 10 contemporary designs of 2009.