When Edgar Arceneaux first asked out Sascha Robinett, he hoped she would accept his offer to have coffee but not his invitation to a movie. Although he had been eyeing his shy co-worker for some time, he was, frankly, broke.
When she took him up on both, he worried about what he was getting into. He couldn't exactly afford the price of two tickets. "I had to borrow money from my mom to eat for the rest of the week," he admits.
At the time, both were in their mid-20s. Robinett was working as a curriculum resource specialist at Franklin Elementary School in Altadena, and Arceneaux was hired to teach at her school as part of an arts-integrated program she had created in collaboration with Armory Center for the Arts.
Soon after they started dating, Robinett enrolled in his painting and drawing class at the Armory. You'd think that an elementary school teacher and the future founder and principal of a school would be a model student, but Robinett was "the worst student I ever had," Arceneaux says. She promptly dropped out - an inauspicious start for a relationship that now includes marriage, a house in Pasadena and a 7-year-old daughter.
An artist and educator, Arceneaux, 41, the fourth of five siblings, was raised in South Central, by a nurse and a delivery truck driver. When gang activity started to rise and crack was hitting the streets, the family moved to West Covina. It was 1984, he recalls, the year Purple Rain was in the theaters and the Olympics came to town.
Robinett, also 41, grew up in Pasadena, with her parents and a younger sister. Her father taught for more than 35 years and her mother worked for much of her life as an artist. (She now runs the children's department at the Glendale Public Library.) Robinett studied sociology as an undergrad at UC Santa Barbara and eventually got her master's degree in educational leadership from Cal State L.A., which pleased her parents, who'd feared she'd pursue her peripheral interest in law instead of a career in education.
After years of teaching and working for educational reform, Robinett in 2004 co-founded Milagro Charter School with Ref Rodriguez. The nonprofit elementary school is part of the Partnerships to Uplift Communities network, which aims to help underserved students achieve collegiate success.
Arceneaux is lucky she stuck around after that first date, Robinett reminds him, what with his sun-beaten Nissan Stanza with shabby seats and a trunk he had to prop open with a crowbar. The living room in his Pasadena apartment was full of stray furniture - couches from a Nordstrom one of his friends helped to clear out after the Northridge earthquake, lamps from yard sales, even a smattering of disposable pillows he'd collected from airplanes.
"I thought it was a rational way of organizing a home," he quips. He lived with things he wasn't too attached to, just in case he wanted to pick up at any point and move.
But he didn't, and neither did Robinett. Today, in the Pasadena house they affectionately call "the castle across from Best Buy," the furniture seems much more intentional. The walls are decorated with art made by Arceneaux, who has become a prominent contemporary artist, and his friends and peers - Charles Gaines, Rodney McMillian, Martin McMurray, Meg Madison, Robert Russell - some gifts, some purchases, some trades. An impressionist painting by their daughter, Zora, based on a work by Monet and with evidence of Arceneaux's hand, hangs in the living room alongside paintings by Arceneaux's Mississippi-born grandfather, who worked as a street sweeper in South Central and painted on canvas shades in his spare time. There is also art by Arceneaux's uncle Cameron Young, one of the first black artists ever hired at Disney.
The couple's weekday routines are nothing alike: Robinett gets up at dawn to drive across town with daughter Zora to school in Lincoln Heights. She often doesn't get home until 12 hours later.
For his part, Arceneaux spends his days working in the studio behind their house or on various community projects around town and abroad. He recently returned from a trip to São Tomé and Principe, a West African nation, where he helped renovate a library as part of a collaboration with the U.S. State Department, and he's currently working on a project for Papillion Institute of Art called "The Library of Black Lies," a labyrinth of handmade versions of famous texts reattributed to black writers.
Next fall, when Robinett and Zora are starting school, he'll be heading to an international biennale and prepping his next big solo exhibition, set to open at Suzanne Vielmetter in Culver City.
Though their day-to-day routines are different, their approach to work is similar, Robinett explains. "We work on different canvases but with similar processes."
She gives him conceptual feedback on his work when he's stuck, while he has helped her put her school together - hauling furniture to classrooms and painting walls. Being in service of the community is a core focus for both. Robinett has stayed in town, she says, because she wanted to give back to the city. She never feels like she's finished.
As an artist, Arceneaux can relate. In his studio behind their house, he points to an unfinished painting that was inspired by his reflections on the Watts House Project, a nonprofit neighborhood-revitalization project, which he co-founded and led for more than a decade before leaving in 2012. The artwork began with a bunch of dots, but then he decided they weren't supposed to be there, so he started numbering them.
"It's called 1,000 Mistakes, but I think I'm going to change it to My Grandmother's Name Was Love, She Abandoned My Father as a Child," he says standing back and looking at it pensively.
"No, don't. You're overthinking it," Robinett says. "1,000 Mistakes is good."
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