Channeling Ta-Coumba Aiken

The novel I’ve been working on is about a painter. This was a conscious decision; I thought writing about a musician would be a bad idea because (1) I’m so close to the topic that I would naturally write it at a high technical level, thus alienating laymen, and (2) I thought it wouldn’t translate quite as well to print. Writing about an author, uh, well I guess it works if you’re more famous and a much better writer than I am, but it just sounded like a horrible idea. Visual arts, however, can lend themselves to some really nice evocative language.

The problem is that I know zilch about painting.

I know a little more now, thanks to ridiculous amounts of research. My basic goal was to learn enough about it so that my descriptions of technique and process weren’t completely laughable to anyone with any experience. I did a fair bit of consulting with Professors Google and Wikipedia, read The Blank Canvas and some other references about painters’ minds, and had some back-and-forth with Cyril Van der Hagen on timeframes. I also contacted Ta-Coumba Aiken, a great painter who is getting a good deal of notice now, happens to live down where I used to, and whom I liked immediately when I met him. (Those of you who know me know how unlikely it is that I like anyone, at anytime.) If you live in the Twin Cities and go outside at any time, you’ve probably seen his work.

I met him this weekend to go over some of the things I was worried about screwing up. I thought it would be pretty quick, maybe forty-five minutes or so including chitchat; I had maybe six examples of projects with potential timeframes based on the complexity and medium of each one, and the quantity of work produced. We met at the Black Dog, a cafe down the block from my old building.

We were at the Dog for two hours.

The timeframes were fairly close (I had already corrected some thanks to Cyril). Ta-Coumba is a fast worker, so the actual time to produce any given work is more or less irrelevant to him, although he works mostly in fast-drying acrylics. He pointed out a process correction for the production of theater masks and how my character would do it given his resources and age, specified the drying time for different kinds of oils, and more things along this vein. However, the spooky part (for both of us, I guess) was when I got into the backstory and the psychology of the main character, and some of the specific technical approaches he used.

Without going into specifics, it seems I’ve been reading Ta-Coumba’s mind for the past four months, and possibly looked back in time.

The psychological aspects of the work closely mirrored some of the things Ta-Coumba had experienced, although he’s not nearly as crazy as my protagonist. There was a disconnect between the actual process of creation (he works in the moment, while my protagonist plans everything down to the last detail), but the reasons for painting were similar. When I asked about a specific technique for creating edge effects in abstracts by layering incompatible paints on top of each other, something I had just made up because I thought it sounded good, he knew about it and went into more detail, saying it was an uncommon technique. (It has to do with varying the drying times between layers of different media to produce warp; I just thought it would be an interesting mistake.) When I described a particular piece in the story involving masking techniques to blend photorealism with entropic abstract, he gave me a weird look.

“You need to come to my studio, right now.”

I went to his studio and stayed there for maybe another three hours. He didn’t have a piece identical to the one I described, but he had a bunch of surreal canvasses that heavily employed masking techniques like the one I made up, and one other that was a nearly-complete abstract except for two hands, almost exactly in the positions I had described. I think I swore a lot. All I can say is it’s a good thing I talked to him when I did, lest he think I was breaking into his place at night and stealing all his ideas.

The strange thing is, when I brought a first draft version of chapter one to a writing group, two of the members were artists themselves. I think one commented on the descriptive language used for the first work that appears in the chapter, in a positive way. The other claimed I was looking into her brain when I described the way the protagonist saw the world, the way his visual centers processed all incoming information in a way different from most people, including me. My thought-model for this was analogous to the way my brain processes complex sounds, a combination of synesthesia and organized latticeworks/grids mapping waveforms into a three-dimensional model (maybe four).

My goal was to not look like a complete idiot to actual painters, while remaining accessible to laymen like myself. Telepathy really never entered into the equation.

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