Avis Collins Robinson is an American artist, philanthropist and environmentalist. She is best known for her quilts and paintings that explore America’s deep-seated, often unacknowledged tensions over race, gender, oppression and history.

Avis Robinson’s works depict aspects of family culture in a semiabstract collage and Cubist style. Her work is layered with images that reference culture, dignity, history, and human condition.  Her artwork represents the historical struggles of her ancestors – Nottoway Indians, Africans and Europeans. Her mixed-media paintings and quilts celebrate not only famous African Americans like Harriet Tubman and Malcolm X, but also anonymous workers whose ordinary lives bear witness to extraordinary courage and perseverance.

Born Avis Edna Collins, on July 26, 1953, in Baltimore, Maryland, she is the third of four children of Edward and Annie Collins. Her life and art encompass an exceptionally broad range of intellectual and artistic interests, including performing arts, history, economics, literature and world art.

Avis moved to Silver Spring, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, D.C., at the age of 4. Her teens and early twenties were spent as an artist, dancer and seamstress, experimenting with the forms she would later synthesize.

In 1971, Avis enrolled at the University of Maryland.  While majoring in economics and urban studies, she also took courses in dance and the visual arts. During this period, Avis also became involved in black activism. Her early realist paintings dealt with African American themes of family, poverty, civil rights and black power. After graduating from UMd in three years she moved to San Francisco, where she embarked on her lifelong study of art, gathering inspiration from African sculpture, masks and textiles. She earned masters’ degrees in economic and finance at Golden Gate University and later at Harvard University. In the early 1980’s, while in Washington working for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, she started experimenting with textile art and began collaboration with the women of the Freedom Quilting Bee in Alabama – later known as the renowned Gee’s Bend Quilters – that continues to this day. 

In 1988, her husband, a journalist, became South America correspondent for the Washington Post and the family moved to Buenos Aires, Argentina. For four years, Avis had the opportunity to travel throughout Latin America and absorb influences from artists in Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Peru and other countries. In 1992, she moved to London, England. She lived near Hampstead Heath, on a street named after the famous portrait artist Thomas Gainsborough. 

It was on returning to Washington that Avis began to erase the line between painting and quilting, ultimately synthesizing the two into a technique and an aesthetic that are hers alone. Her quilts, with their bold colors and free-form lines and shapes, have been described as “painting with cloth.” Her paintings, which feature that same irrepressible sense of color, incorporate pieces of antique fabric in the picture plane, creating depth and texture.

In 2009, Ford’s Theatre permanently installed Avis Collins Robinson’s “Mr. Lincoln” in the lobby – the only prominent image of Lincoln in the historic theater where he was assassinated. Her works have been exhibited at the Nelson Gallery at the University of California at Davis, the Morningstar building in Chicago, the Adler School, The Studios of Key West, Arlington County Public Schools, the National Museum for Women in the Arts, Riverviews Artspace in Lynchburg, Virginia and other venues.

She has been married since 1978 to Eugene Robinson. They have two sons, Aaron Eugene Esq., and Lowell Edward.

The paintings and quilts in my collections are about the human spirit.

My artwork is extremely personal, and reflects my profound devotion and respect for the African Americans who influence my life – people who made it possible for me to think and express my feelings without fear of retribution or doubt regarding those feelings’ validity.

So much attention is given to a few outspoken, goal-oriented people in this world. My art is about the men and women who worked as slaves, mechanics or seasonal workers, who worked in the fields and the factories. Their friends and families respected them, and they respected themselves.

Many of the people in my artwork were not proud of their occupations, and they didn’t like to talk about being a slave, janitor, maid, servant or sharecropper. What I try to depict is the humanity of these people – their internal beauty, the degradation and anger that they felt working lower class jobs with first class intellectual capabilities.

They are people who studied on their own to be master plumbers, seamstresses who know how to draft patterns and understood color theory. They are truck drivers and prisoners who read Frederick Douglass, and could recite a poem by Langston Hughes and attend highs schools named Dunbar and Woodson.

Thus, when I create a painting or quilt about slavery, I corporate pre-Civil War broadcloth, old ragged quilt tops, and other two-dimensional artifacts into the composition so that the artwork comes alive. In the painting “Slaves in a Field of Cotton,” for example, slaves’ bags are made of burlap and their clothing is made of broadcloth and 1800s quilt tops.

I grew up in a then-rural part of Montgomery County, Md., that had been settled a century earlier by freed slaves. Among my earliest memories was sitting alone in my room in our house, built by one of those original settlers, and sketching portraits in pencil – of myself, of people in the neighborhood. I learned to draw with charcoal, and later began using acrylic paints. It wasn’t until I began quilting, however, that I fully understood how to use color. About 30 years ago, I began working with a group of textile artists in Alabama who were then known as the Freedom Quilting Bee – now the famed Gees Bend Quilters, whose work has been show in museums and galleries around the world. Far from being naïve artists, the quilters of Gees Bend rely on sophisticated color theory to create their bold, unforgettable works. My mentor in Gees Bend, Mrs. Mensie Pettway, taught me how to use color – and then challenged me to take what I had learned and create a style of my own.

I was able to apply that same sense of color, composition and texture to my paintings. In every sense, they are part of a single body of work.
— Avis Collins Robinson