The Big Picture

Painting for museums and parking ramps alike, artist Ta-coumba Aiken treats the city as his canvas

When Ta-coumba Aiken was growing up in Evanston, Ill., his father, a janitor at the local Woolworth's, brought home crayons, papers, and the like from dumpsters behind the store. Though he wanted Ta-coumba to become a lawyer when he grew up, he knew his son had a strong creative streak. Ta-coumba's mother, an artist who painted old furniture with colorful patterns of dots and lines, saw it too. She encouraged her son by her example. "My mother was a healer," Aiken says. "I used to watch her work when I was 7 or 8. I saw whole worlds in the dots that no one could disturb. I used to look at her designs for hours." By then Aiken had already had his first show, which he says pulled in $657.36--a number that seems etched into his memory.

One day, when Aiken was 11, he fell and hit his head so hard that he lost his ability to see color. "Imagine the shock," Aiken says. "I had decided all I was going to do for the rest of my life was paint. And suddenly all I could make out was blues, blacks, and some pinks. I couldn't see colors...Everything looked the same."

Doctors could do nothing to help the boy, so his mother turned to a Jewish-Ojibwe woman she knew. This friend, a healer in the tradition of the Ojibwe people, brewed a concoction of herbs and gave it to Ta-coumba to drink. When he woke the next morning and saw the morning light striking the ugly curtains in his bedroom, his color vision had returned. In fact, the colors were much more intense for having been lost. "I screamed and hollered," Aiken says of the event. "I saw the prettiest colors in those old curtains."

The rapture: Ta-coumba Aiken calls his swirling, colorful style "spirit writing"
The rapture: Ta-coumba Aiken calls his swirling, colorful style "spirit writing"

The most remarkable thing is, according to Aiken, the doctors who could do nothing to help him in the first place gave him a stern warning, that he has not forgotten: They told him he would eventually lose his color vision again.

"That's why I do so many colors now," Aiken says. "Everything is preparation for the day I lose my color vision. By now it's gotten to the point where I can say, damn, I've done so many things I don't care anymore."

Nonetheless, today Ta-coumba Aiken produces art at a frenetic pace. In the past year alone, his output has been remarkable: 60-70 paintings, 10 murals for the Science Museum, illustrations for cards and book covers, designs for fabrics and dresses, and three stage sets for local theater groups. Perhaps as a result of such industry, Aiken can be called a commercial success as an artist at a time when many of his colleagues are struggling. His work has been collected by such people as Maya Angelou, Herbie Hancock, Taj Mahal, and Evan Maurer (the director of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts), among others. Over the years he has shown his work in Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., New York, and, of course, in the Twin Cities at such sites as the Walker Art Center, Intermedia Arts, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, and the Minnesota Museum of American Art. Apart from such upscale environs, Aiken has created murals for grain elevators in Annandale and Good Thunder, and a St. Paul municipal parking garage. At present, his recent paintings are on display through March 21 at the Lounge in Minneapolis as part of an Exhibit-produced event called Diaspora that celebrates the work of local African-American artists in various media.

Such a range of achievements seems a likely result of the apparent accessibility of the artist's creations. Yet Aiken's work bridges a gap between the modernist traditions taught in art schools in this country and the age-old traditions of the self-taught folk artists who create work out of some ineffable spiritual compunction. To the extent that Aiken's artistic roots hearken back to the untrained efforts of his mother, it makes sense for his work to display an exuberantly "naive" style and an interest in the realm of the spiritual. But since Aiken did spend time studying at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design in the 1970s, there is a kind of refinement and professional quality to his work that is not often found among folk artists. His colors are always carefully chosen, and his canvases are professionally stretched and well tended.

Viewed together, Aiken's paintings display a careful unity of style and tone. The swirls of bright color and expressive, flowing lines in his images are punctuated with rhythmic patterns of dots. The effect recalls Australian aboriginal forms translated through the color-scheme and sensibility of 20th-century abstract expressionism. Ecstatic human figures, or angels, as Aiken calls them, inhabit these lively spaces as metaphors for spiritual rapture.

At the Robert Street municipal parking ramp in St. Paul, a cluster of Aiken's dancing figures covers the windows on the adjacent skyway (which Aiken says is "the first skyway in St. Paul to have art"). The forms reach outward for the sky with exuberance and act as a prism for the sunlight that shines through the paint. Aiken has termed his style "spirit writing," and describes these images as attempts to evoke a joyous, godly realm.

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