THE TREE that grew in Brooklyn has nothing on the lilacs that bloom in John Robinson's Anacostia back yard--and in his paintings now on view at the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum.
"It takes an optimist like John Robinson to look down the street here and see only flowers, or a tree," said a canny museum guard as he viewed the sunny landscape paintings of old Anacostia--rolling hills, tidy homes, colorful gardens, wire fences and a clear view across the Anacostia River to Southwest Washington.
For Robinson, 70, Anacostia remains a place filled with beauty and sunshine, not poverty and strife. There he married,reared seven children and painted celebratory scenes of his family life, such as "Breakfast at the Robinsons" and "Here, Look at Mine!" a joyful scene done recently of nine beaming grandchildren seated around the dining room table, all proudly showing off their latest drawings.
But Robinson admits Anacostia has changed since he moved there with his grandparents, after the death of his mother and the departure of his father. Left with four brothers and sisters (aged 3 to 10), he was forced to quit school to help support them.
"When I was 12, I worked with my grandfather in the garage--sweeping the floor and dusting cars," he recalls. "After work, I would paint, and a chauffeur of one of the patrons saw my pictures and became interested." As a result, Robinson was brought to the attention of James V. Herring, head of Howard University's art department, and he was allowed to study there under James A. Porter in exchange for doing cleaning chores. "What I learned at Howard was the basis of my efforts in art," says Robinson, who studied drawing there, but is otherwise self-taught.
Though he worked full-time at St. Elizabeths Hospital for 34 years--first as a kitchen helper and later as supervisory cook--Robinson always managed to find work as a painter, though recognition eluded him until 1976. Then, at age 64, he was given his first, highly successful retrospective at the Corcoran.
In Anacostia, he painted the first of several church murals (many later destroyed during the Southwest urban renewal) and earned money painting backgrounds for downtown photo studios. Coworkers at St. Elizabeths often had him paint their children's portraits, when he wasn't painting his own. Though some are overly sentimental and occasionally verge on caricature, the overall output is impressive.
A source of great pride were the cash prizes Robinson repeatedly won at the annual outdoor art fairs held in the '40s in Lafayette Park, all sponsored by the Washington Times-Herald.
One of his masterpieces records such an event in a realist style that recalls Thomas Hart Benton. Included within it, in miniature, is his best portrait--a Norman Rockwell-like image of Maud Jones, who sold newspapers at 14th Street and New York Avenue NW, and was "obsessed with having her portrait painted with a Bible." She disappeared while the work was in progress.
The Anacostia Museum, which is looking especially handsome these days, has also mounted a companion show to introduce the lithographs and watercolors of a younger artist, Larry Lebby, 32, now a resident in Alexandria. Though social consciousness plays a larger role in his work, and there is clearly some rage at the core of it, Lebby shares a spiritual kinship with Robinson in his focus on family ties. Especially affecting are photo-realist images of an elderly black couple with a young child, titled "Project New Day," and the nostalgia-laden "If I Show You My Tenderness," based on a '20s snapshot. Best of all, however, is a sepia-washed lithograph, burnt at the edges, titled "Sheriff Boyd Saunder of Sloan County," which suggests a switch on the usual "wanted" poster.
Both shows are accompanied by slide presentations (the one on Robinson is especially good), and will continue through Feb. 27. The Anacostia Neighborhood Museum, a branch of the Smithsonian Institution, is at 2405 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. SE, and is open Mondays through Fridays, 10 to 6, Saturdays and Sundays, 1 to 6.