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Local Color

Petaluma's Mimi Robinson encourages entrepreneurship in global artisans through art

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A SENSE OF PLACE  Mimi Robinson, left, worked with artists in Kütahya, Turkey, to help bring their work to market. - TED BARBER
  • Ted Barber
  • A SENSE OF PLACE Mimi Robinson, left, worked with artists in K├╝tahya, Turkey, to help bring their work to market.

Artist Mimi Robinson resembles a colorful palette, much like those she generates in her inspired plein aire watercolor paintings and her "personal visual journal."

Unlike many artists who work intuitively, Mimi has devised a philosophy of color that she explains in her new book, Local Color: Seeing Place Through Watercolor, published by Princeton Architectural Press. She teaches her ideas and methods in workshops around the Bay Area with the intention of "helping people to sharpen their powers of observation and raise people's consciousness of their world, the places they live and the colors that are all there."

Robinson is also a skilled designer and an artisan who travels the world from Peru to Kyrgyzstan to consult with and advise local artists. For this facet of her work, she comes equipped with business acumen, which includes marketing and product development. With all these pursuits, she remains an even-keeled, gracious woman with a passion for the outdoors.

Color and light are Robinson's main connection to both art and life. Unlike some who chronicle experiences with photographs, recordings or diaries, she creates palettes of colors wherever she goes. Even an ordinary walk down the streets in her hometown Petaluma becomes an opportunity for observing nuances of color and light. The color palettes are swatches of watercolors on scrap paper that replicate the colors she observes in the environment.

Each one resembles a contiguous collection of small Mark Rothko–like paintings. She invents names for the colors she's mixed "to evolve a more personal connection to the place." Ochre could be renamed "summer grasses"; gray might be called "jackrabbit." She encourages her students to do the same.

"Looking back at the palettes brings me back to the time and place," she writes in her book. "It's a way of keeping memories. Each place has a specific color range and an identity. Looking at a palette of a summer day on a cold February night can help to bring back that experience." She has shoeboxes full of these visual journals.

Robinson comes from an artistic family. Beginning at an early age, she painted with her father who gave up a law practice to illustrate children's books. Her mother is also a painter, and the family went on painting vacations. One of her brothers became an architect, the other a talented woodworker.

Robinson attended the Rhode Island School of Design, where she majored in painting. After college, she earned a living making forensic models of crime scenes for lawyers. She and her business partner hired their similarly poor artist friends to help. During these years she haunted model train stores for materials, and her miniatures were considered so charming that lawyers sometimes gave them as gifts to their children, minus, one supposes, a diminutive corpse or two. From this quirky occupation her work evolved into constructing high-end architectural models. Then there was glass blowing, a passing hobby.

Eventually, she became director of product development for the Nature Company, designing products that educated children about their environment, everything from butterfly kits to sundials.

Now she's on the road a lot, which, in her case, involves travels to off-the-beaten-track places in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia and the Caribbean. Her work is supported by a range of NGOs, governments and private institutions that support independent businesses and subscribe to fair trade practices.

When Robinson is invited into a project, her process runs a dual track: weeks of research followed by work in the field. She sees her work as helping local, entrepreneurial artists develop what they already do, their "core products," whether it's quilt-making in Haiti or ceramics in Turkey.

Color plays an important part in this mission and a significant role in the identity of the products created, sometimes over generations. In Peru, for example, she says, "the natural color of the animals they tend—alpaca, llama and vicuna—create hues of browns, creamy whites, silver, gray, browns and blacks." Purple tones come from the ahuaypili leaf. In Haiti, she says, "paintings are colorful, vibrant and inspired by the tropics."

Through creating color palettes she encourages artisans to become more conscious of the colors of their environment, which then feeds into new design ideas.

When appropriate, she helps artisans expand their products, but does not make income from the production. In Haiti, it might be using the same quilt-making skills to create pillows, which might appeal to a different clientele.

She believes that developing local markets with sustainable materials makes more sense both economically and culturally. Sometimes, however, artists live in isolated areas where there are no markets or tourists. When appropriate, Robinson is prepared to shepherd handmade wares to large U.S.-based and European gift shows that provide exposure for the artists' work and, more important, to potential buyers.

Perhaps in response to our age of mass-produced everything there is still a yearning for craft. "Handmade is alive and well," Robinson says. "There is a huge market for these products. People want to know who the maker is, and where and how they're made."

Robinson partnered with La Red MATAT, a Mexican organization working with 22 women's groups that support indigenous communities and craft techniques. She helped to create collections of home textiles and accessories that were inspired by the embroidery traditions of Hidalgo, Puebla and Chiapas. A collection of hand-stitched felt wool pillows and embroidered oil cloth were subsequently displayed at the New York International Gift Fair in 2014.

Meanwhile, she's working on showing her own creations and holding more "local color" workshops. "I love teaching and drawing out people's creativity wherever I am able to do that in the world, be it with artisans who have generations of knowledge passed to them or with people in our own society who may or may not have had their creativity encouraged through their lives."

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