VISUAL ARTS | Ta-coumba Aiken, “In the Spirit” and in the zone at Metro State’s Gordon Parks Gallery


The Gordon Parks Gallery at Metropolitan State University’s St. Paul campus hosted a reception on Thursday night, February 3, for In the Spirit, a new exhibit featuring the work of Ta-coumba Aiken. The showing includes mixed media paintings by the St. Paul artist who is perhaps best known for his public murals and his mentoring work with area youth.

Aiken described In the Spirit as being in the zone, so to speak. “When I get into my paintings, I’m into something else besides myself.” Aiken said. “I’m there—with all my knowledge that I can possibly bring—but when I get in the spirit I’m something greater than when I’m trying. The best thing I can do with a painting is try not to try…then it flows.”

The works on display indeed flow—within each individual piece as well as around the room. Aiken greets visitors with two brightly painted blown glass vases on either side of the entrance. He then uses the left and right walls to house collages of smaller canvas paintings, which are tied together by a large, loose cloth painting spread along the back wall. The result is a sort of “stream of consciousness,” according to Aiken.

“I call it my DNA,” said Aiken. “Because I paint a certain way—from top to bottom and side to side, even upside down-these [paintings] line up really well.”

Aiken’s style for In the Spirit draws upon on pattern and repetition. He hints at human imagery—faces and bodies that blend into abstraction within multiple layers of line and color. Aiken draws from his rich heritage (which includes African, Irish, and Hispanic roots) for inspiration.
“My ancestors just jump in there,” said Aiken. “I’ll start drawing and all of a sudden I’ll just see something I’m not familiar with so I’ll trace it…there’s a whole array of people moving towards a village. I don’t know if they’re African or Native American or Asian or Mexican but they’re different and they’re well developed indigenous cultures—more sophisticated, probably, than we are. I don’t know if it’s future or past.”

Aiken is asking for help in deciphering the mystery that he has created. The exhibit is meant to be an interactive exercise: notebooks are available throughout the room, and visitors are urged to write down what they see and how they feel about Aiken’s work. “I only give you one percent,” said Aiken. No matter how much I talk to people about these paintings, it’s still only one percent. I want to hear their stories.”

In the Spirit runs through February 25. The Gordon Parks Gallery is located on the third floor of Metropolitan State University’s Library and Learning Center on the St. Paul Campus at 700 East Seventh Street.