Anyone familiar with the Twin Cities art scene has likely come across the name Ta-Coumba Aiken.
A native of Evanston, Ill., Aiken knew he wanted to be an artist at the age of three. That early self-assurance led him on a creative path that has crisscrossed continents, leading to a sizeable impact in the Twin Cities.
As a local artist, arts administrator, educator and activist, Aiken’s passion for community outreach fuels his public art and collaborative projects. He has participated in the creation of more than 300 murals and public art sculptures with themes ranging from local history to his own interpretations of “rhythmic pattern and spirit writing.”
Among his best-known creations are the Jax/Gillette Children’s Hospital mural, the Minneapolis Central Library’s tile fireplace and the north side’s Pilot City murals project. In mid-February, his latest public art project at Union Depot in St. Paul broke the Guinness World Record for “Largest Picture Made of Lite Brite,” a play on the popular ‘80s toy made of light pegs.
A natural and gifted storyteller, Aiken shared with ThreeSixty a series of important “a-ha! moments” that set him on the path to becoming a locally beloved artist.
How did you end up in the Twin Cities?
I went looking for Madison, but wound up in Minneapolis because I drove too far and missed the Madison exit. I asked some man in Eau Claire … to point me to the city with the most black people in the area and he pointed me toward Minneapolis. I made it to Minneapolis and I pursued my art from there. I always felt a strong sense of community. Without that strong sense of community when I first started doing my art back in my hometown of Evanston, Illinois, I probably wouldn’t be an artist right now. I also went to Minneapolis College of Art and Design later and continued to create my art.
Where were the best opportunities to practice art when you were younger?
Well, we had summer camps where you could make things like lanyards and things with Popsicle sticks. I also took a drawing class when I was about 11 years old. I saw a sign that said “drawing classes,” and I saw some drawing styles that I didn’t know. They were contour drawings, but I didn’t know what they were. I also saw many portraits and jewelry. I went in and asked the teacher how much the drawing class would cost … it was $125. I brought in my money and signed my name, because you didn’t have to get your parents’ signature.
The man gave me a drawing pad and some materials, and I saw this skull of a cow and I just started drawing every shadow. And the man forgot the class he had started, so he came outside and gave me my money back and told me to go home. But then he saw my drawing of the cow skull and ran in and got two (other) students. They were all confused and they couldn’t figure out who had done it. They were all shocked that I had done the drawing.
One of the ladies who worked at the artist store walked me home because she lived in my neighborhood. She walked me home and spoke to my dad, and all I could hear was my dad saying, “$125? For some drawing class! We’re not paying for that!” The lady replied, “But we already have the money here in this envelope.” I told my dad I had gotten the money from my bank account where I put my money from (an earlier) drawing I sold. The result was that I got to take the class, and every time I went into the art store, it was an art lesson.
What personal experiences had the biggest impact on your artwork?
Well, there was this festival celebrating African art and the winner got to go to Africa. I wanted to go to Africa for years, but I just didn’t have the money … When I got the call from the World Festival of Black Arts and Culture, I was shocked. I thought it was a prank from one of my artist friends, because they knew how badly I wanted to go. But the man spoke on the phone and said, “Hello, this is Dr. Jeff Donaldson from Howard University and you are invited to the Second World Festival of Black Arts held in Lagos, Nigeria.” I hung up the phone. Then he called back and said the exact same thing, but added, “If you hang up again, I am going to have to reconsider this offer.”
I apologized and accepted the invitation. All of a sudden I was in Lagos. The festival was for three weeks and was celebrating all African people from South America, Cuba, Asia and Russia. All types of artists were welcome. There were dancers, singers and painters like me. At night, there were dance performances in the streets and all types of parties.
What was your favorite part of that Africa trip?
Well, I participated in a national show there and the whole vibe of Africa made me change my way of painting. I couldn’t even think of how to paint anymore. Colors have changed since then. I could just pick up a paintbrush and just let the emotion take control.
One time, I was taking a nap there and when I woke up, I heard someone say, “He’s awake. The rock is awake.” The guy later imitated me sleeping, and I was like, “Who is that?” And it was Stevie Wonder recording me snoring. “I like that beat, I like that beat,” is what he said. I looked around and there was this huge line of people to say something to him. I felt that I should leave, but he told me to stay.
I remember there was this aboriginal young lady and her father. And I think I have seen his art later in life. He was one of the most influential aboriginal artists around Africa. The little 13-year-old girl proceeded to tell Stevie Wonder about how much she admired him. You could see the way that she lit up when talking about his albums. And all I could think is, “I want someone to admire me like that one day.”
Stevie left to go and get more “sounds.” In those days, artists were recording everything. Meeting Stevie Wonder and having that experience in Africa was life changing. To meet all types of people from all around the world and all types of artists. My mind was exploding.