I first met Ta-coumba Aiken in the summer of 2000 at the Peanuts on Parade opening reception in Saint Paul. Aiken was one of seventy-five artists chosen to paint five-foot statues of Snoopy installed around the city to honor Saint Paul–born cartoonist Charles Schulz. Since then, about once a year our paths cross, and despite the lack of regularity, the bond between our artistic spirits—mine, a budding writer/photographer’s, and his, a blooming artist/muralist’s—has flourished.
One dark night in the fall of 1969, on his way from Evanston, Illinois, to Madison, Wisconsin, guided by the starry skies, sixteen-year-old Aiken missed his exit on the highway, and before long he was entering the state of Minnesota. A walk around the beautiful oak trees in Fair Oaks Park in Minneapolis the following morning turned the previous night’s mishap into the beginning of many adventures ahead for him in the Twin Cities. He fell in love with the stillness of his surroundings, the warmth of the people, and their unique rhythm.
Aiken’s images have been on display in Saint Paul’s public spaces, including murals. His first mural was done in 1975 for the Hallie Q. Brown Community Center; a recent one, my favorite, is on the walls of the Jeremiah Project’s housing for low-income single mothers and their children on Concordia Avenue. Each mural is created as a gift to the community, says Aiken, and he strives to create imagery that will give people hope.
A recipient of national awards, Aiken has also earned a Bush Foundation Artist’s Fellowship for visual arts, as well as numerous Minnesota State Arts Board grants. In winter 2007–2008, Aiken was honored as the featured artist in the exhibit Call and Response at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.
A twenty-five-year resident of Saint Paul, Aiken has been involved with various community organizations, leading workshops for children and serving on arts boards such as the Saint Paul Arts Collective. In 2007, he was the recipient of the Rondo community’s Kwanzaa People’s Award for his dedication and ongoing commitment to the community.
Aiken is extremely proud of his role in helping to develop the thriving artists’ community in Lowertown. One of the original residents of Lowertown Lofts Artists’ Cooperative, the first working and living space for artists, Aiken pioneered with other innovative people to make things better for everybody.
From the window of his co-op, he sees the mighty Mississippi River, and in his soft voice he talks to the flowing waters and believes someone downstream in the deep South will hear his message. He shares his soul with the river, and it also lives in the swirls and lines of his murals. “Things are okay,” the spirits whisper.
When Aiken’s children were toddlers, he thought of moving to a single-family house so they would have a back yard to play in. “No need to do that,” they said. “Saint Paul is our back yard.” Forty years from the first time he saw the shadows of the city from the highway, Saint Paul is still the place where Aiken lives and plays.
“Here in Saint Paul, it’s not unusual for people to run into each other and simply say ‘hello’ and not get in your business,” Aiken has said of our sporadic, accidental meetings, “As long as we do things to build self-confidence and to give a real positive sense of space.”