Sixteen years have passed since Philadelphia artist Vaughn Stubb began painting “A Life: Paul Robeson.” The painting was created piece by piece and slowly put together like a puzzle.
Stubb is a multidisciplinary artist who studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia after serving in the military during the Vietnam War. He works at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and teaches sculpting classes to the blind. He was approached in 1996 to create a portrait of Paul Robeson for a competition that was being held in honor of Robeson’s 100th birthday.
“People came to me and said ‘You’re in it, you’re it,’ so that was very nice of them and then I thought well what am I going to do?” said Stubb.
Stubb said he did not know much about Robeson before beginning the painting, but once he began his research he was instantly inspired.
Paul Robeson was an athlete, singer, actor and civil rights activist. Stubb and his colleagues at the Paul Robeson House believed that by incorporating several facets of Robeson’s life into one painting others could become inspired to strive to do more with their own lives.
Stubb said of his painting, “There were so many things I wanted to show.”
The ceremony was July 1, at The Paul Robeson House, located at 4951 Walnut St. Stubb had family visit from as far as Connecticut for the unveiling. His niece, Arvolyn Hill, traveled for the ceremony and was able to make distinct connections between her uncle and the man he painted.
“He was an actor, he was an athlete, he was an artist, he was a singer, he did all those different kinds of things and it just makes sense that my uncle did this painting because he is the exact same way. He is a painter, he’s a chef, he is also a jewelry maker, a quilt maker and a comedian. There are parallels in their lives so it makes sense that this all came together,” said Hill.
The ceremony kicked off with welcoming speeches by Cassandra Green from the Mill Creek Community Partnership and Darrell Gresham, who works at the Paul Robeson House. Before the painting was unveiled there were performances by The Paul Robeson ensemble and a heartfelt speech by Rev. Gus Roman.
The Paul Robeson House, which is a registered historical landmark, as well as an Official Project of Save America’s Treasures is in the heart of Walnut Hill.
Darrell Gresham works at The Paul Robeson House and he hopes the marketing and revamping of the historical landmark will instill a sense of pride among neighbors as well as bring positive energy and attention to the area.
Gresham explained, “Hopefully, they will get that inspiration and be proud of the fact that we have a cultural institution right in West Philly. Hopefully, we can start a new art program here and outreach to the community.”
The Paul Robeson House is currently being renovated with a scheduled opening for visitors by next spring. The ceremony for the painting was packed so there is a large interest in the vicinity and the legacy of Paul Robeson.
The house is a part of the West Philadelphia Cultural Alliance along with other historical and cultural landmarks such as the African American Museum, the Philadelphia Folklore Project and the Mann Music Center among many other popular historical or culturally rich institutions in the region.
CEO and founder of The Paul Robeson House Frances Aulston has been advocating for the arts in West Philadelphia for decades and has been vital to the growth of The Paul Robeson House. She said she sees the importance of history, culture and the arts and has been active in spreading her initiative since 1984.