Thanks to the taillights of a Chevrolet Corvette Stingray, St. Paul became the adopted home of artist Ta-coumba Aiken.
The Lowertown legend’s story of a wrong turn on a journey from suburban Chicago to Madison, Wis., possesses an artful, accidental intuition that characterizes the way he lives. Most of the time, he ends up being right — or heading down the road he’s supposed to go down — by happenstance.
For some reason, I followed a Corvette Stingray, thinking it would get me to where I was going,” Aiken said of his first drive to the Twin Cities. “My mind was completely gone.
Then I realized my gas tank was about to go empty; I saw a gas sign, and I went down this road that winded down. I’m like, ‘Where the heck am I going?’ I pulled up, and was wondering if Lilliputians were going to come out.”
Aiken paints and sculpts in the style of superlative realism, a term he coined himself. His upcoming solo exhibition at Lowertown’s the Show Art Gallery, “Intricate Simplicities of the Spirit,” features thought-provoking paintings that show the complexities in things people mistake as simple.
“The imagery is intricate simplicities,” Aiken said of superlative realism and his upcoming show. “When people say, ‘What’s an intricate simplicity?’ I’m like, ‘Everything.’ The solid form is very simple. Everything that makes [human beings] solid [is] very intricate.”
While many of the works tend toward the small side, Aiken said his intent is to offer affordable canvas paintings to people who want his colorful, expressive art in their homes but can’t afford the prices his larger pieces command.
Though the layperson would think superlative realism is a mixture of pointillism and African art influences, the creation and detail of Aiken’s style and work make it clear that they are only roots of the style.
Aiken’s presence is artful, from the studied way he speaks to the creative intention that punctuates every single dot placed on one of his canvases. Aiken said art is a healing medium that pushes him through tough times and a conduit to express his personal beliefs on cultural and political issues.
“Life is not a flowchart. It’s just a flow,” Aiken said. “You can chart it afterwards, but you don’t look at it to get there. I’m a philosopher trained by my art, not a philosopher that creates art based on my philosophy. I create my work to heal.”
Aiken grew up in Evanston, Ill., and took to painting and drawing as a calming activity from a young age.
He said his first art show happened at age 6 in his family’s basement, netting him almost $660.
“A friend’s aunt came and changed the prices before we started,” Aiken said. “Five cents turned into 50 cents or $5. … She changed all that stuff, and after three days of people putting in paper [money] and some coins, I was blown away.”
Though Aiken said his dad wanted him to pursue a career in law, art remained a constant in his life.
He said he attended the Minneapolis College of Art and Design in the late 1960s and graduated with a B.F.A. The ’70s for Aiken included a stint with Honeywell and chairmanship of the African American Cultural Center.
Aiken said he moved to St. Paul’s Lowertown neighborhood in the late 1980’s or early ’90s. He set the groundwork for the enclave’s artistic renaissance by renovating a dilapidated warehouse with other members of an arts organization he belonged to.
He’s also had a solo exhibition at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (a rarity for local artists), and the Walker Art Center has purchased and exhibited artwork of his. Aiken also participates in numerous public art initiatives, including installations on the Midtown Greenway corridor and the Peanuts statues that dotted St. Paul in the early 2000s.
On a sunny Sunday morning at Black Dog Coffee and Wine Bar, everyone seemed to know Aiken, the ranks including fellow artists, pilots and environmental activists. His warm demeanor and vast experiences make him a master storyteller, and his understandings of the intricacies and simplicities of human life make it clear why he’s part of the heart of the community.
“Erase everything [you recorded] and start with this phrase: I stand before you to sit behind you to tell you something I know nothing about,” Aiken said of his upcoming show, with a smile.
Intricate Simplicities of the Spirit, opening reception
Where The Show Art Gallery, 253 Fourth St. E., St. Paul
When 6-9 p.m. Friday