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Arts + CultureArtOf memories and migration: Trina Michelle Robinson's deep family...

Of memories and migration: Trina Michelle Robinson’s deep family excavations

The expansive video artist, with deep roots in the Bay Area, tracks down puzzle pieces of identity.

Through the doorway of multidisciplinary art, Trina Michelle Robinson is walking toward her past. Sharing personal stories in film, archival materials, and text, the artist explores themes that connect her to her heritage, in order to understand her present.

The relationship between memory and migration is the essential focus of Robinson’s work. When she learned the details of her maternal family’s history, she was struck by how parts of the story had been completely erased from the family narrative. She had to know why.

“I want to get to the root of lost or fractured memories that intersect in some way with migration—whether the migration is by choice or forced,” Robinson told 48hills.

Robinson grew up in Oak Park, Illinois and graduated from DePaul University in Chicago with a degree in political Science. After college, she lived in New York for 15 years and worked in magazine publishing. During her second year there, she enrolled in a full-time theater program at The Neighborhood Playhouse, attending classes for a year between jobs working as an assistant at The New Yorker and Vanity Fair. She later worked for The New York Times Style Magazine.

Self-portrait of artist Trina Michelle Robinson

“I really feel that I grew up during this time, because the work was so intense and I developed some of my most lasting friendships,” she said.

After moving to San Francisco in 2015, she worked for The California Sunday Magazine and its live journalistic storytelling adjunct, Pop-Up Magazine (RIP). Recruited by Slack to work on their content marketing team, she decided to make the leap to tech. But she soon found that she needed to be part of the creative world to survive.

“Though [the transition to working in tech] was a great opportunity, I realized that the creative energy that existed in my previous jobs was definitely missing at Slack. It was a radically different industry, producing content for very different reasons. It became clear that I needed a more creative environment to breathe, to live. And that’s when I began my move toward becoming a visual artist,” Robinson said.

With that intention intact, Robinson completed an MFA at California College of the Arts in 2022, and was included in the Museum of the African Diaspora’s (MoAD) Emerging Artist Program. She’s been active in the local art community for four years, but Robinson says she felt its welcome instantly. The Bay Area is actually home for her in many ways, the site of her family’s deep roots that extend back to the dawn of the 20th century. She has one ancestor who was buried in the Presidio back in 1932. 

“When I arrived in 2015 and decided to focus on exploring my familial connections here, claiming my space in this incredibly beautiful city that has called my ancestors for multiple generations, the art community overwhelmingly supported me in this exploration. They made me feel at home,” she said.

Installation shot, “Go West”, (2023). High definition video installation. Photo by James Ken Butler

Currently residing in Lower Nob Hill, Robinson has workspace in the Dogpatch’s Minnesota Street Project. Her art practice includes a considerable video component, and much of her time is spent editing, projecting images onto her walls, or using one of many monitors and a vintage CRT TV to process her work. Robinson is investigating how she can continue to push the boundaries of storytelling with film and video, while incorporating a sculptural component. Through sketching and storyboarding, while using existing footage to test a few ideas, she is in the early phase of creating a large-scale print piece. The work is related to content Robinson found in a newspaper article from 1889 that details an event in which an ancestor was involved.

She cites contemporary artist Kara Walker as having the most profound impact on her art career, saying that Walker is perhaps the reason she became an artist at all. Robinson says she was shaken to her core when she entered a showing of Walker’s work at the Whitney around 2008.

“I swear that exhibition caused me to recall things, memories in my bones I didn’t know were even there. I didn’t understand at the time what was happening,” she said.

Later, Robinson referenced that intense sensation. She was in the process of recovering lost stories of her ancestors, creating a series of video essays that were centered on resurrecting absent, splintered, and repressed memories. She says that it was Walker’s work taught her that it was possible stage this recovery through art. 

Having explored migration stories to answer questions about her place in the world, Robinson is now pushing herself to go further, diving into the topic on an even larger scale. She is currently expanding her video installation “Go West,” originally part of the Kala Institute fellowship exhibition “Dig & Rise” over the summer. The new version of “Go West” is slated for exhibition this spring.

“Elegy for Nancy,” (2022). High definition video. Photo by the artist

Robinson hopes that others will see their own family migration stories in her work, or that misplaced memories will resurface for them in some way. She is also part of the Bay Area Now 9 exhibition currently being presented by Yerba Buena Center for the Arts through May 5. It’s the ninth iteration of YBCA’s signature triennial exhibition, highlighting artists working throughout the Bay Area’s nine counties.

Paper is People: Decolonizing Global Paper Cultures at San Francisco Center for the Book is featuring Robinson’s work through December 22, with an opening reception on Fri/17, from 6 to 8pm. She’s also participating in the 135th YWCA Berkeley/Oakland anniversary, in partnership with Berkeley Art Center. The program entitled Past, Present, and Future: Pink Tea for Women’s Equality runs through December 9. She has work for sale in EXiT, the brick and mortar store owned by Catharine Clark Gallery, where she recently had a presentation of work.

Robinson enjoys the oral form of storytelling as well, having toured with The Moth Mainstage in 2019, and occasionally participates in live events. She says that she is excited about the future, and her continued growth as an artist.

“I’m trying to take more time to focus and mindfully develop new work,” she said. “I have so many questions, and art is the best way I know how to try to answer them.” 

For more information, visit trinamrobinson.com and on Instagram.

48 Hills welcomes comments in the form of letters to the editor, which you can submit here. We also invite you to join the conversation on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram

Mary Corbin
Mary Corbin
Mary Corbin is an artist and writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She can’t get enough vivid colors, walks in the woods and well-told tales. She recently published her first nonfiction book. Visit her website at marycorbinwrites.com.

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