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.
“Other than that, I’ve avoided doing this [big exhibition] like the plague,” she said. “But it’s time.”
She got advice from her husband, Pulitzer-Prize-winning syndicated columnist Eugene Robinson: “Gene said, ‘Don’t resist it’.”
Robinson said his longtime wife would prefer to be out of the limelight, “but when she is, she is perfectly at ease, totally natural and really a powerful speaker.”
That was evident as Collins Robinson, dressed in bright yellow and orange that matched the vibrancy of her art, animatedly talked about her exhibit.
She began with her childhood, when she unknowingly lived two lives. “One life was in all-white schools competing with white students and kicking their butts,” she said. “And then I would come home to my poor black community, where I had a horse, 10 acres of farmland and had to know how to sew because we couldn’t go to places to buy clothes.”
While her mother had a good job at the National Institutes of Health, the family was not allowed to live in the nearby white neighborhoods. Avis and her siblings were among the first black kids in Montgomery County to attend Coleville Elementary and Holy Cross Academy. “We were the only raisins in the rice bowl,” Collins Robinson said.
It was at the Catholic school, where the cardinal had to approve the attendance of black children, that Collins Robinson learned about sketching with dark and light shades from the nuns. She won awards for her art, but at college she found art materials too pricey and did not paint for decades.
In the 1970s, while working at the EPA, she began creating the tops of quilts. But with limited time, she sent them to “poor black women down in Alabama” who could stitch the tops, batting and backs together for her.
Collins Robinson ended up learning a lot from them about dying fabrics and using secondary colors — oranges, greens and purples. One of the quilters, Mensie Pettway, taught her that it was OK to “forget the patterns” and “just go ahead and go for it, girl.”
In 2002, those women became well known as the Gee’s Bend Quilters. Most were descendants of slaves, who first made quilts out of necessity, gathering scraps of fabric to sew together to make bed covers.
During this time, the Robinsons also had been amassing a large collection of slavery and civil rights items and documents coveted by museums, including the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture, scheduled for completion in 2015.
Their collection includes many items from their own ancestors, as well as an Eli Whitney cotton gin from 1790, an iron slave collar with bells, and documents and hand-written testimony from the murder trial of James deWolf, a wealthy boat captain who threw a girl slave with typhoid fever overboard while she was gagged and tied to a chair.
The country’s dark history comes to life on the quilt she painted of a large black man in silhouette swinging an axe while wearing a puffy white shirt. “This is just totally political,” she said. “It’s titled, ‘He built America.’ ”
Portraits of the president, Michelle Obama and Jackson feature backgrounds of bright glitter. “Why not be silly?” she said. “Kids make the most amazing art and it’s something that I would have done in fifth grade. The whole time I’m doing art, I’m trying to be free.”
Collins Robinson has one more small exhibit planned for April 26 at Washington Lee High School. It will feature a portrait of Vivian Malone, who was one of two black women who integrated the University of Alabama despite the opposition of Gov. George Wallace.
“It’s to educate students that this incident happened, and to show how you can document history through art,” Collins Robinson said. “Then that’s it. I need to go back into my cave and do work.”