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By Barbara Schreiber
Correspondent

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  • Tommie Robinson

    Robinson’s murals “History of Basketball” and “Action Wall” are in the escalators area of Time Warner Cable Arena.

    Quoting: “I knew I was going to be an artist when I was 7 years old. … But I had teachers who discouraged it. … So I try to teach young people that if you have a desire to do something, go for it. You’ve got to have a place to sleep. But aside from that, what’s stopping you?”



If you’re looking for pieties, don’t go to Tommie Robinson.

Although he is working on some impressive paintings for the sanctuary at Charlotte’s Friendship Missionary Baptist Church, his motivation is more sociological than religious.

This untitled set of six paintings is traditional in subject matter – the Crucifixion, Judas betraying Jesus, Jesus’ baptism, and related imagery – but there is an important twist.

All the models are members of the church.

Robinson, 66, made this daring choice because, he says, he wants people, particularly children, to see someone other than the typical Jesus.

“For me to be worthy, for me to be approved of, I’ve got to have blond hair and blue eyes,” he says. “That’s crazy. I want people to see their worth.”

The project consists of two triptychs (three-part paintings), each with a 7-by-5-foot center panel and two 7-by-4-foot flanking panels. Robinson is 14 months into the 22-month project at the church, 3400 Beatties Ford Road.

“It is extremely humbling and exciting to make the historical biblical narrative alive with faces that we know,” says the Rev. Clifford Jones Sr., pastor of Friendship. “It creates a deeper understanding and sense of warmth for the biblical narrative. We see ourselves in these biblical figures and see them in us.”

Jones wanted the paintings done at the church, so Robinson converted a cramped office into a studio.

Here is evidence that you can make art anywhere. Every square inch is crammed with stuff – finished paintings, preliminary drawings and oil sketches, photographs and brushes – and the air is redolent with the smell of oil paint.

When he was young, Robinson recalls, he was beloved, if not always understood.

His father worked in the shipyards in Newport News, Va. He died in 1953, when Robinson was 7, and he and his mother moved to Lumberton to be near family. In 1955, they arrived in Charlotte.

In his teens, Robinson was considered the man of the house; but when his mother remarried, he lost his status. He left home at age 15 and began a series of adventures that could have ended badly.

By 16 he found his own place and supported himself by selling liquor. Arrested twice for bootlegging, he was told it was either the chain gang or the military.

So at 17 off he went, but instead of Vietnam, he was stationed in Nuremberg, Germany. Europe “blew my mind. I didn’t know about the Louvre. I didn’t know about Munich or Berlin. I didn’t know the great cathedrals of Europe.”

He left the military at 20 and stayed in Europe for two more years. Returning to Charlotte in 1969 at age 22, Robinson went to Central Piedmont Community College on the GI Bill to study commercial art despite a disdain for deadlines.

One day he walked past the ceramics studio “and I saw all these people playing in the mud. I never thought about where a plate came from or who made this goblet.”

An instructor invited Robinson in and he dropped his commercial art classes and began studying ceramics, jewelry and sculpture. He took only two painting classes – although they were with formidable teachers: the nationally lauded Maud Gatewood and Elizabeth Ross, who founded the fine arts department.

Robinson never finished his degree; instead CPCC’s gerontology department hired him to teach in an adult education program.

Addressing social issues

Commissions have always paid the bills for Robinson, but he finds them stressful.

The Friendship paintings are an anomaly – a commission that Robinson finds both fulfilling and enjoyable. His murals at Time Warner Cable Arena, “History of Basketball” and “Action Wall,” may be his most notable commission; he has also done projects for RJ Reynolds/Nabisco, Michelin Tires and Urban League of Central Carolinas.

But the pressure of these commissions, with their deadlines and restrictions on subject matter “literally made me sick,” he says, plaguing him with stomach problems.

Robinson’s heart is with the paintings he exhibits in galleries and museums, which invariably address social, political and environmental issues.

In fall 1993, Davidson College professor Herb Jackson curated an exhibition of Robinson’s paintings of street people for the school’s new arts complex, pairing Robinson’s show with renowned abstract artist Kenneth Noland. Jackson lauds Robinson’s “masterful use of watercolor to focus attention on the homeless citizens of Charlotte.”

B.E. Noel, owner of Charlotte’s greatly missed Noel Gallery, says Robinson’s “Mayday Mayday …” exhibition, “a series of exquisitely executed allegorical large format paintings that address the universal topic of man’s impact on the environment, was perhaps one of the most profound and important exhibits of my 18 years in Charlotte. The paintings are sublime.”

In 2011, Robinson received a Gantt Center Award. In conjunction with this honor, he had a small exhibition at the Gantt Center.

“Tommie’s … impact in the Charlotte region has been huge,” says Gantt president David Taylor. “He has selflessly shared his wealth of knowledge with students as well as with fellow artists, both aspiring and accomplished.”

Inspiration at the library

Libraries hold an important place in Robinson’s life. He paid homage to them in “Product,” a self-portrait with Charlotte’s main library in the background. This painting was included in “Scene in America: A Contemporary Look at the Black Male Image,” a 2008 exhibition curated by Kimberly Thomas at the Mint Museum of Art.

As a child in the Jim Crow South, Robinson could check out books from bookmobiles and neighborhood libraries. But his access to the main library involved subterfuge.

“The women at the bookmobile would sneak me in the Main Library on Saturday mornings, because black people couldn’t go there. They would put me in the art reference section because they noticed that every time I went to the bookmobile I always checked out an art book.”

The library also beckoned later when, as a soldier in Europe or as an artist in one of his many downtown Charlotte studios, he needed a refuge or a break.

“Two of the greatest institutions to me, in Charlotte, are Central Piedmont and the public library.”

Robinson recently returned to Charlotte after living in Mount Gilead, where he moved in 2008 to paint without interruption. He had always dreamed of living in a rural environment because of happy memories of his grandfather’s farm – and his earnings from the arena commission gave him the freedom to fulfill his dream. During this quiet period, he pulled his work from galleries and took down his website.

“It was a selfish thing on my part,” he admits. “I really didn’t want to be bothered. … I just wanted to get away from it for a while.”

Robinson enjoyed his years in Mount Gilead, but ultimately decided it was not his style. Now back in an urban environment, he wants to work with younger artists, taking on apprentices so he can teach them his craft.

His new studio is at the LATIBAH Collard Green Museum, artist T’afo Feimster’s space at 720 Tuckaseegee Road.

“I never thought I’d live to be 66,” says Robinson, “but it’s been 66 great years and I’ve been free most of them.

“I couldn’t have chosen a better profession. It allowed me to see the world; it allowed me to be in the presence of people who were interested in what I was interested in. And it just changed my whole perception of the world. Period.”

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