The Big Picture

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

Back in our commercial world, Aiken has done a piece for Absolut Vodka, which commissioned the artist to design an ad for their well-known campaign. His ad is an explosion of primary colors that might have been found on the palette of such expressionists as Henri Matisse--though a red Absolut bottle replaces that artist's "Red Room." Aiken's image is composed as an idiosyncratic collection of simple repeating head forms and swirling lines. This opposition between the simple figures and the complex composition is typical of Aiken's creations.

"I try to make complex images look simple," Aiken says. At age 46, he is a big man with a gentle demeanor. He face is round, and his closely cut hair is graying slightly. He smiles readily, though for the most part he exudes a sense of purpose and seriousness, particularly when discussing his work.

In a lowertown St. Paul studio, where he lives with his two children (daughter Tienenji, 17, and son Jamal, 11), Aiken points to a large acrylic-on-canvas painting he calls "The Birth of the 21st Century." It is predominantly blue, though swirling lines, colors, and dots fill the space with activity. Several female profiles can be seen amid the flurry of motion--beautiful and elegantly poised heads that seem to wait patiently as the world whirls around them. This large painting is to be included in the soon-to-open Diaspora show, though it's not quite finished. As I watch, Aiken points to spots in the painting where he thinks he should make compositional adjustments: adding color or dots, toning down this or highlighting that. He stands in front of it, thinking aloud and calculating. Then, as if noticing something he has not seen before, he turns and crosses the room.

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

"That's funny," he says, digging through some papers. He pulls out two items: a book for which he has designed the cover, and a calendar that has a reproduction of his painting "She Speaks" above the month of January. All three images, Aiken points out with excitement, have hands reaching down into the image from the top right-hand corner. "I've never noticed that before," he says.

After a time, we sit down at his living room table amid a small clutter of the trappings of Aiken's artistic life: canvases, brushes, paints, palettes, various promotional brochures, books, and calendars. "Everything for me has always been art," Aiken says, gesturing enthusiastically. Over his shoulder, more heaps of art materials--paper, canvases, posters, fabric--fill a large, open space. His living area doubles as his studio, and large mandalas, small, thin panels, and wall-sized canvases cover the walls of his home. It is, perhaps, tight quarters for a workspace and a family of three.

When pressed, Aiken will talk of the harder times in his career: When he once needed money so badly he had to ask 100 friends for $40 apiece in order to pay a bill. Or when he sold three paintings in one day only to realize that the total amount of the sale was but one-twentieth of the $32,000 he was in debt. Or when he came home to discover that his wife of 16 years had moved out, leaving him with their two children. Aiken's debts were mostly a product of bad luck, he says: public projects that were delayed or canceled, mistakes by accountants. Dealing with such matters doesn't seem to come naturally to this artist (or many others), though he reports that he is presently trying to bone up on the "business" side of art. "A friend once told me, 'If I were in your situation, I'd kill myself,'" Aiken says, smiling. "So I responded by saying, 'Good thing you're dead and I'm not.' I mean, it's a puzzle to figure out, not to quit."


Many artists construct a mythology to explain themselves to a skeptical world. Andy Warhol, for instance, grew up a child of Czech immigrants in Pittsburgh, studying at the Carnegie Institute of Technology before getting his start drawing shoes in the advertising business of the 1950s. Yet, by careful calculation, Warhol eventually managed to distance himself from his conventional origins: dyeing his hair and styling it into an impishly wild mop, dressing in the hipster fashions of the time, making cryptic and glib statements for the press, encouraging an entourage to linger at his "Factory" studio. Warhol's image today is that of the quintessential New York art guru, yet we forget how hard Warhol worked at the mundane tasks of being an artist: seeking out shows at prominent galleries, selling work to prominent collectors, experimenting in the new media of the time (video, cable TV, pop music).

Ta-coumba Aiken, meanwhile, has chosen to construct an image of himself as an artist possessed and inspired. While a student at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design in the 1970s, for instance, Aiken was a well-known and striking figure on campus, wearing a three-piece suit as well as a drastic mohawk haircut. Even after 40-odd years of making art, Aiken still works tirelessly at it, still surrounds himself with it, and still tries to spread his images around the state and the nation with an evangelical fervor. "I create my work to heal the hearts and souls of people," Aiken says. "I don't rush for the galleries, though things find me...I just want to encourage people to stop being lazy and get out and see what they're missing."

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