“I do my work as a human being. It just so happens that I’m good at art.”
Ta-coumba Tyrone Aiken: painter, drawer, muralist, public artist. Guinness World Record-holder. Unofficial Mayor of Lowertown, St. Paul.
When I ask the question what is art to you? I usually get a few laughs or chuckles, especially from artists. But I want to know something: I want to know what that thing you do and spend all your time on means to you, truly.
It means something to everyone, sure, but I’m looking for answers from those who are are most passionate, who have dedicated their whole lives to their craft. Does “art” means something different to them? It’s hard to say, but I always ask. Its hard to write about the look on their faces when I ask that question, but it’s the most mind opening questions with the smallest, simplest answers.
What is art to you?
“A pain in the ass,” Ta-coumba laughs.
We discuss how art can be a job, a hobby, fun, but, as he describes it, “always life.” It’s always there. There is no schedule for when to be creative, and when to step away; that’s simply not how the artist’s mind works.
Art has been a part of Ta-coumba’s life for as long as he can remember. He started painting before he was 10 years old, and over the years it became something greater; it became a (the only) way of life. He’s gotten to the point now where he can focus, and put all his time and energy towards, his art. He doesn’t have to work a full time job while following his passion on the side.
He’s worked hard, and sacrificed, to earn that lifestyle.
“I don’t work specifically for the rich or the poor, I work for both.”
“I don’t have to be someone who cooks and works a job, acts and works a job, or paints and works a job,” he says. “The only thing I’m able to maintain is my art and me.”
This, for so many artists struggling to get their work into the world, is the ultimate dream.
But it’s not about traditional notions of success, fame.
As Ta-Coumba tells me, “Art has life, energy, movement. Very similar to a complete choir with all the altos, tenors and sopranos.”
Art is healing. This is something which vibrated through our conversation over and over. “Believing is a big part of my art,” as Ta-coumba says: Having faith in himself, in life, in love, in what he creates, and his influence is something that has become a cornerstone of his work from the very beginning. After his mother passed away when he was 20, this faith was enlightened and opened to a stronger importance.
Inspiration and the future
Ta-coumba’s parents have influenced his art in immeasurable way. But it goes much deeper than just the most immediate generation: knowledge of ancestry, as well as a lack of ancestry knowledge, also play a large role in the creative process. The lack of knowledge brings some curiosity and ambition to explore, observe and learn more.
This is perhaps why folklore, spirituality, and spiritual guidance also seem to shine through in his work. Indigenous artists, rooted in culture and techniques that have been passed down from generation to generation, and the subsequent evolution of culture therein, are incredibly important.
But important art can’t stay confined to mythos and mantra. Art plays a role; it’s a tool in the community to make it strong and keep it going. The art that Ta-coumba creates is meant to be more than simply a canvas on the wall (or a Minnesota State Fair poster, for that matter): Supporting the community, and the community of artists, is crucial as well.
“I look forward to a world where we can celebrate everyone’s differences and values.”
Over the past years here in MN, Ta-coumba has been able to grow as an artist and a community leader. From his World Record Light Brite, countless public art murals, and the most recent piece, “The Spirit of the Fair”, which is a commissioned piece for the MN State Fair to be the official 2017 MN State Fair Poster, Ta-coumba has already been able to enjoy an exciting, and successful, career as an artist.
“I want to be in a financially comfortable place where I can give someone a painting as a gesture of friendship and community,” he says.
Ta-coumba hopes the future will allow him to continue to make a difference in the community, educate others, expand comfort levels, and get to a level where, as he says, “my life is on my terms”.
“I’ve been learning how to not be an introvert for 48 years.”
And, ultimately, find some time to relax.
The future will involve change, as it always does, but ultimately, at the end of the day, he’s looking forward to being the only one for one special person: his loving and supportive wife.
No spare time today
Free time for a working artist is a phrase not often heard or used. Art is life, and always happening. The small amount of “free time” Ta-coumba takes is spent learning Mandarin (on which he spends roughly 2 hours a day), watching Chinese movies and films of cultural dance from any and all parts of the world, and observing the community and its ever-changing, always-growing culture.
With a schedule as full and free-flowing as his, side projects are just as common as a scheduled meeting or event. He is constantly working on commissioned pieces, murals, small paintings, drawings, mentoring and being on the Board at MCAD.
Ta-coumba started his MN life in MPLS, but that was short-lived. He has been a cornerstone of the Lowertown, STP neighborhood for 32 years now, and, through all the change Lowertown has seen, you can start to imagine why he’s considered the mayor of the neighborhood. But when I asked him the now ubiquitous question, favorite side of the river and why (MPLS or STP)? his immediate response was, “Northside (MPLS),” before explaining how he has spent ample time in each city, and thinks STP has a richer culture that is more often celebrated through community and architecture, instead of constantly being buried by the newest Uptown condo, or latest specialty commodity store.
You can tell this is the answer of someone who doesn’t like to see a lot of the social standards, and lines drawn in the sand. Ta-coumba is an extremely observant, “big-picture” human with the hope to heal all communities and make them whole.
This is what he, and his art, are all about.
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