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."

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

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 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.

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 Diasporashow, 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.

"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."

This philosophy was evident in the set designs Aiken created for a recent theatrical production of Ajax by Pangea World Theater. In effect, Aiken integrated his art into the very fabric of the performance. Massive, gauzy bolts of cloth covered with gold and black arabesques hung behind the performers. A cloth painted in the same manner lay on the floor at the play's onset, representing Achilles' armor. And a colorful mandala acted as a focal point for the performers' movements.

"The circular pattern was very important to the play," said Dipankar Mukherjee, the artistic director at Pangea World Theater. "When we first were discussing the text, Ta-coumba and our lighting designer decided to build around the circular cosmology. We then decided to make people move in circles around his circle and make a kind of journey....He brought this sense of interconnectedness up from his own cultural background."

Looking back at Aiken's painting "She Speaks," one finds these same circles, swirling around the heads of angels, streaming from their mouths, circling around a cross form and underneath an outstretched body flying through the sky.

"It's a real exciting time for me," Aiken says. "There's a devil and an angel on each of my shoulders, and they're whispering in both ears. I'm constantly trying to make sense of all that goes on."

 

Paintings by Ta-coumba Aiken will be on display at The Lounge through March 21; (612) 333-8800.

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