You can tell a lot from a man's hands. If you watch John N. Robinson's hands they can tell you his life story. The scars relay tales of more than 30 years of kitchen work at St. Elizabeths Hospital, but the finely manicured nails, cut precisely to the quick, hint at an artist whose portraiture reaches beneath the surface to reveal his subjects' emotions.
If you see John Robinson's portraits of his wife or his children, or scenes of his neighborhood, you feel you know them all.
But six years after his first one-man exhibit at the Corcoran Gallery, when he was "discovered" by the art community, few people really know about Robinson, the artist.
"I guess I'm just not pushy enough to succeed at things," sighed Robinson, who blames himself for shunning the social functions that normally lead to crucial contacts and publicity and produce sales of an artist's work.
Despite the acclaim he garnered from the Corcoran exhibit, he admits it has brought only slight changes. "I do get a better price for my pictures now. I was told not to sell anything for less than $1,000. But a lot of people can't afford to pay that much," he said.
"It's partly my fault," he said, reflecting on the social and economic conditions that led him to put earning a living ahead of earning a reputation as an artist. While he became what he calls "a Sunday painter," Robinson spent 35 years working his way up from kitchen helper to supervisor at St. Elizabeths.
"An artist, to further his career along, has to be free. If they have families, the families are usually neglected," Robinson said last week, smiling as his wife of nearly 50 years straightened the photographs of their six children and 11 grandchildren arranged around the living room of their Southeast Washington home.
A tall, soft-spoken man of 70, Robinson sat with his fingers interlocked, as he apologized for the empty spaces on the walls.
"I'm sorry I don't have many paintings to show you. They are all out; I have two exhibitions going now," he said proudly. An exhibit of more than 20 of Robinson's paintings is on display through February at the Smithsonian's Anacostia Neighborhood Museum. A gallery in a private Washington home also has some of his works.
In lieu of paintings, Robinson offers a scrapbook filled with photographs of his works, some of which date to 1920. Among the works are several that won prizes in art competitions sponsored by the the old Washington Times-Herald. Others were from the catalogue published for the 1976 Corcoran exhibiton.
It was through the efforts of the Anacostia Museum and the Barnett-Aden gallery, where Robinson's works had been exhibited, that he was brought to the attention of the Corcoran.
Roy Slade, formerly director of the Corcoran, said that "Robinson looks into the inner poise and nobility of the sitter. His work is unassuming, his approach and commitment give a quiet authority and individual consistency to his art, that of a sincere individual allowing insight into the world that others might not hear."
Robinson developed his sensitive eye in an era of streetcars, daywork and Model T Fords. A native of Georgetown, he remembers the taunts of neighborhood children on long-ago Sunday mornings as he and his siblings carried laundry to the families for whom his grandmother took in washing.
"We came up the hard way," Robinson said, almost proudly, his huge brown eyes only slightly dulled with age. His mother died and his father disappeared and left him, his sister and three brothers to be raised by their maternal grandmother and her new husband of three months.
Though Robinson's formal education was interrupted in junior high school, his art flourished as he sketched on cracker box tops he found in the Old Georgetown Garage where he dusted the cars his step-grandfather guarded each night.
One of the chauffeurs' relatives took Robinson's sketches to the head of the art department of Howard University, who arranged for the teen-ager to study under Prof. James A. Porter. Robinson attended classes two hours a week for two years tuition-free, until the university administration changed he had to drop out for financial reasons, he said.
In the ensuing years, Robinson went to work at St. Elizabeths, raised a family and began the still-unfinished process of remodeling his wife's childhood home, where they now live. To augment his salary, Robinson painted church murals and backgrounds for theater productions and photographers' studios.
Many of his murals on church walls were destroyed with the buildings during the urban renewal of Southwest Washington in the 1960s. Among the few that he painted on canvas are two at Emmanuel Baptist Church, 2409 Ainger Place SE, around the corner from his house.
A walk through his two-story, white frame house, complete with its white picket and lattice archway, is like a tour of Robinson's life and artistic development, from the childhood sketches which led him to Howard to the clay models and wood carvings of his own children.
Although several of his works remain unfinished, including two of those on display at the Anacostia museum, their overall effect is striking. Colors appear to fade into the sketch, like a memory, with only the strongest images retaining color.
"If it was a portrait, the person probably didn't come back. If it was one of the kids, I just never had the time to get to it," he said, looking at an unfinished work and then picking up a 30-year-old unfinished watercolor of his oldest son from the floor of his studio.
A master of several media -- oil, acrylic, watercolor, plaster and charcoal -- Robinson admits age has taken its toll.
"When I was young, I used to do charcoal sketches in seven minutes," he laughed, which turned the faint smile lines that mark his face into valleys. "Now the hand is not so steady, but the eye is sharp."
Because of that slight unsteadiness, Robinson now paints with his right hand braced against a yard-long stick. He has had several seizures over the past few years, a result of stress, he said, but he retains the patient dedication that turns a brush stroke into a lilac petal.
Taking up his brushes one recent afternoon, Robinson turned to one of his favorite subjects: nature. A painting of a tree in his back yard was in process, but his passion is for lilacs, the blossoms that overran the yard when his wife was young.
"Before we bought this house, my mother-in-law used to sell lilacs," he said, pointing to where rows of lilacs once grew. "But I found them to be better for painting first and then selling.
"When we first moved here, there was nothing but dirt roads, we were really pioneers," Robinson chuckled, pausing to survey the Garfield Heights neighborhood where he has lived for more than 40 years, "but things have changed.
"For one thing, I used to paint to classical music," he mumbled, holding a brush between his lips. "Now I listen to country."
Although he believed he would never make a living from his art, Robinson said he always knew he would be an artist, "whether I got paid or not.
"Money is not important," he said, with a sparkle in his eyes. "Art is. Art is its own satisfaction."