Students view Avis Collins Robinson's work at Washington-Lee High School last Friday. (Arlington Public Schools)

The gymnasium at Washington-Lee High School was transformed into an art gallery last week to offer Arlington County students a new way to experience African American history.

Through the paintings and quilts of local artist Avis Collins Robinson, students saw familiar faces of abolitionists and civil rights leaders such as Sojourner Truth and Malcolm X. They also studied portraits of working people who fought in America’s wars, planted the fields and built universities.

The one-day exhibition, “Please Remember Me: Honoring Extraordinary Ordinary People,” was a personal tribute to the artists’ late parents. By extension, Collins Robinson sought to honor their generation — the black Americans who formed a bridge from the indignities of the Jim Crow era to the heady possibilities of the Obama years.

“I wanted to express how much I loved them and how hard they worked for us,” she said.

Hundreds of students viewed the exhibit last Friday morning and stayed to ask the artist questions. Arlington superintendent Patrick K. Murphy was inspired to set up the show after he saw the collection.

An evening event drew community members and some prominent figures, Collins Robinson said, including Michelle Obama’s mother and Attorney General Eric Holder and his wife, Sharon Malone, whose sister is memorialized in one of the paintings. The piece captures the moment that Vivian Malone Jones and another student faced off with Gov. George Wallace, who attempted to block them as they walked in to register for classes at the University of Alabama. It was 50 years ago in June that they finally desegregated the university.

Collins Robinson is not a professionally trained artist. She’s a Harvard-educated economist who worked at the Environmental Protection Agency. Her husband is Eugene Robinson, a Washington Post columnist.

She learned to draw in her youth and turned to paint six years ago, after her mother died.

“I fell to pieces,” she said.

The interplay of brightly colored acrylics on canvas and hand-dyed strips of corduroy fabric helped stitch her back together.

Her collection begins with her extended family and the memories of her childhood in Good Hope, a former slave settlement in Montgomery County. Her paintings show her mother, who was a biochemist at the National Institutes of Health, mixing a “1-2-3 cake” while a little boy waits to lick the spoon. Her father, a veteran of two wars who worked in housing and rural development for Montgomery County, is shown in his Navy uniform. Her husband’s Aunt Doc is all dressed up and dozing in a rocking chair waiting for her family to get ready for church.

In one painting, an old man with a scruffy beard and blue jeans leans against a wall. “He could be anyone. Maybe he was a migrant worker on a sod farm,” Collins Robinson said. The image was inspired by a man she knew growing up.

“My neighbors worked menial jobs by day,” she said. “But at night they were Mr. and Mrs. Somebody to us.” 

Her paintings go back in time to show the early experiences of African Americans. There’s a pregnant slave woman filling a burlap bag with cotton, and an intricate portrait of freemen — brick masons building a university after the Civil War.

Collins Robinson blurs the lines of canvas and quilt, adding fabrics and textures to her paintings. She uses upholstery from the furniture in her childhood home, her father’s old suit pants and her mother’s lace to make a kind of collage. In a portrait of Harriet Tubman, an old quilt top becomes a head covering, and a kind of rough cotton or hemp that was used for slaves’ clothes is used for Tubman’s shirt.

Collins Robinson designed quilts for three decades while working and raising a family. She sent the pieced tops to partners in Gee’s Bend, a now famous artists’ community in an isolated river-bend community in Alabama, to be turned into finished quilts.

Many of her quilts were also on display at the school, with their free-form scraps of corduroy, crushed velvet and recycled fabrics.

The artist is a family historian and avid collector. She and her husband have amassed an extensive archive of objects from African American history, including the records of slave traders, a chest full of shackles from a slave ship, an original cotton gin and pre-Civil War black dolls.

The centerpiece of the Washington-Lee exhibit was the large painting of Vivian Malone and James A. Hood. Collins Robinson applied her mother’s old lace to Malone’s skirt and included a still-visible historic postcard from a lynching under a layer of paint.

“She was fearless,” Collins Robinson said of Malone.

Eric Hill, a college and career counselor at Washington-Lee, stood in front of the painting last Friday. “I remember seeing the same scene vividly on television, the dogs and the tear gas,” he said. He saw the exhibit in the morning with students who were “buzzing about the show all day,” he said. And he planned to go back that evening. In between he wanted to spend more time looking at the collection by himself.

“The history means a lot to me,” he said.