Play Ground's first art exhibit features late activist, artist

Robin Washington hopes a display of artwork by his late mother Jean Birkenstein Washington will set a standard for Duluth's newest exhibit space and perhaps kick-start interest in an important artistic voice.

Robin Washington hopes a display of artwork by his late mother Jean Birkenstein Washington will set a standard for Duluth's newest exhibit space and perhaps kick-start interest in an important artistic voice.

He says the exhibition, covering gangs, city life, slavery and a wide variety of artistic styles, has something to say in Duluth and elsewhere.

Birkenstein Washington died in 2003 at the age of 77. The eclectic and intellectually curious woman was known in Chicago and nationally as an educator, artist, mathematician and civil rights activist, having earned a degree in music from Middlebury College in Vermont and a diploma in fine art from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. In the 1970s, she completed coursework for a doctorate in mathematics from Illinois Institute of Technology, although she did not take a degree.

She was also a published poet.

Most of those facets of her life come through the exhibition at the Duluth Playhouse's Play Ground space, curated by Robin and his wife Julia Cheng.


Robin is a nationally known journalist and the editorial page editor for the Duluth News Tribune. His wife is a veteran photojournalist. Washington also sits on the Playhouse board. (The exhibition evolved independently.)

He says he's obviously biased about his mother's work and so has taken great pains to focus not on his opinions about his mother's work but what he knows about them.

"I probably know more about her art than anybody," he said.

For instance, he can provide inside knowledge on some of the subjects of her paintings, including gang members, simply because he knew them. Already involved in the civil rights movement, when his mother started teaching, she also opened her home to Chicago's Vice Lords and Cobras street gangs.

That got her featured nationally in Jet magazine, in a story illustrated with her paintings.

Washington's inside knowledge has even resulted in a competition. Those visiting the exhibition will see a painting called "Lord and Cobra," depicting two rival gang members in "relatively benign jousting." On the painting is a noticeable feature, the letters "CVL" painted on the shirt of one gang member, Teddy. Teddy himself saw the painting while it was still wet and painted the letters on himself, signifying "Conservative Vice Lords," his gang's official name.

Birkenstein Washington responded by telling Teddy he could have the letters but not so large. She corrected the alteration, although some of the marks are still visible, and added the letters in smaller form. That's how the painting stands.

But since it is in need of restoration, Washington is surveying those who attend on just how it should be done -- simply cleaning up what his mother had done and making the gang member's alteration less clearly visible, or eliminating the added letters altogether. The contest is dubbed "Art or Graffiti? You Decide."


Inside knowledge? "This guy Teddy would actually babysit for my brother and me," Washington said. He said he didn't even know there was anything unusual about having gang members in the home until he was an adult.

Other gang paintings by the artist depict a killing and time in jail. One not shown at the exhibition is entitled "Don't Save Us, Save Our Children," indicating the feeling among some gang members that they are already lost.

Birkenstein Washington's artwork comes in series, of which the gang paintings are one. The most prolific is the "Across the Street" series, which includes paintings in several styles looking at the vista across the street she lived on for 35 years in Chicago's North Side. Robin Washington compares it to Cezanne's recurring depictions of Mont Sainte-Victoire.

"It was a nice vista, and for a city, that was a pretty big deal," Washington said.

The paintings range in style from impressionist to cubist, and they range widely in time, as well, from the 1940s to the 1970s.

One of the most notable of the paintings is "The Cat Convention," which depicts a series of cats gathered around a tree. "They are doing what cats do in mating season," Washington said.

Another series deals with slavery. Birkenstein Washington, among other causes, was active in the push for desegregation. When the Jewish artist married an African American man, Robin's father Atlee Washington, in 1950, she grew interested in her new last name, so predominant among American blacks. Curious, she engaged on her own research, which suggested it was derived not from the first U.S. president but from an American Indian word, specifically a Cherokee one.

She surveyed people and explored the phenomenon that many African Americans married American Indians. Some of the original survey cards are on display with the exhibit.


Paintings in the series depict these relationships.

The other series on display, about "angles, lines, space and time," is more esoteric. One abstract painting, "Coincidence," reflects some of Birkenstein Washington's mathematical ideas, in an attempt to depict a five-dimensional world.

Other subject matter in the series includes a Vermont church and a cat eye. "Her" is a portrait blending the features of the artist and a romantic rival.

All of the pieces on display come from the collections of the artist's two sons, Robin and Glen, although her works appear in other collections, as well.

The display, the first retrospective of Birkenstein Washington's work, presents a new voice.

"She was saying something really unique," Washington said. He particularly cites the gang images as an artistic expression not usually encountered.

The display was up for the Play Ground's grand opening earlier this month and will have an opening of its own at a date to be announced. It can be seen currently at any Play Ground event.

For more information on Jean Birkenstein Washington and for examples of her artwork, see .

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