PUTTING ART FIRST
THURSDAY JULY 14th, 2011
TJ Aitken is an artist first. It just so happens that he spent the largest part of his work life in the automotive industry. He is one of the lucky few that had the opportunity to merge his artistic talents and sensibilities into a fulfilling career. Born near Detroit to a middle class family, it was no surprise that he would find himself working on an auto assembly line after high school. After a brief time on the line, he was encouraged to go to college. “My lofty plans for pre-law were quickly squelched after a brief and eye-opening internship in an office setting for the City of Detroit,” confessed Aitken. “It was then that I switched my major to Art.” After college, like many of his generation, he headed west to find himself, in his case to Victor, Colorado. He became mayor for a term and did community revitalization through artistic ventures in the ’80s. There he opened an art studio and perfected his craft in miniature sculpted portraiture. “I worked mostly in pewter then, but soon found that the market for my work was limited by an earlier entry to the market.”
Aitken’s re-entry to the automotive industry was providential. His artistic talent in sculpture led him to automotive design and back to Michigan. “I had the honor and opportunity to work with and learn from artisans from the old-school of automotive design. They were the generation of clay modeling sculptors that created our car designs from scratch, by hand, in full-scale clay models,” said Aitken. “I was fascinated with their techniques and tools and crafted my own sculpting tools based on what I learned from them.” As the auto design industry grew and changed, Aitken describes this time as a master class in models and materials.
By this time, he was living in western Michigan and working for Johnson Control Inc., formerly Prince Corp., leaders in automotive design. His drive to create would draw him to his studio at home. “I would put in a solid 60 hours at work and then spend another 20 hours in my studio, exploring themes that included inspiration from my work and observations of the auto industry. My home is filled with art pieces created during that time that were inspired by ancient tribal masks. Each of the masks tells a story and is made from auto console parts.”
Aitken’s stellar career in the automotive design industry included the opportunity to shepherd the design techniques from traditional methods to new computer-aided design methods; spending a period of time in Europe to learn new design approaches as well as understand a different car culture; developing and implementing an aesthetic assessment program to evaluate car designs; and a career highlight of developing a creativity management workshop/curriculum.
It was the work in creativity management that Aitken was sure would lead him to a new career after car companies. “It was 2006 and I was all set to build a personal consultancy around the principles of creativity management,” explained Aitken. “I was finding great resources like the New North Center that valued my experiences and skills. I was building a following as a speaker/presenter on the topic of creativity management. But along the way I had one of those rare moments to stop and reflect on my priorities, what I learned, or rather remembered, was that I am an artist first. I went back to my studio and for almost a year sorted, prepped and experimented with new methods and materials to communicate my artistic point of view. While I will still work and present on creativity management topics, I am committed to my sculpting work first.”
Aitken describes his artistic narrative: “The automotive industry, especially the American automotive industry, has reached a pinnacle and now is experiencing the downhill side of the pinnacle. It is that rise and descent that fascinates me, and I find myself building compositions that will tell the story of the impact of the automobile on our society.”
The large scale compositions of sculptor TJ Aitken have twice enthralled thousands in the Grand Rapids ArtPrize competition, ranking among the top 25 art entries in this critically acclaimed competition. Aitken has also joined the ranks of contributing artists to the Midwest Sculpture Initiative (MSI). “The MSI has got it right, they have created a method for showcasing major sculptural works of art in communities across the Midwest. Usually artists must find a way to fund their submissions into shows like this, but in this case if your work is selected, you receive a stipend to bring your work to the marketplace. Everybody wins-the community, the artist and the initiative. Midwest Sculpture Initiative founder and sculptor Ken Peterson works with communities to value art installations beyond the obvious beautification. Communities learn to appreciate artistic works while at the same time reaping the economic benefits.”
During his materials and methods exploration, Aitken discovered a technique to create large scale compositions using sculpted foam and a thin overlay of concrete and polymer mix. The result is the impact of stone carving with far less cost and weight. Aitken has self-published three how-to books on the technique for artists. “These techniques could have a dramatic impact on creative output for artists. My dream is more large scale sculptures telling important stories for communities,” said Aitken.
The special composite material process was recently put to use in a heartfelt commission to create a lasting memorial for a fallen police officer. The work was installed on July 2nd in East Grand Rapids (pictured right).
Currently, Aitken’s studio is full of scale drawings, materials samples and models of his 2011 ArtPrize submission. While the subject of the art installation can’t be revealed prior to ArtPrize, this composition promises even greater impact than past submissions. “My neighbor here is a landscape company. They are coming by this week to help clear the space outside my studio for this piece of work. It’s going to be big, nearly the size of a house!”
TJ Aitken and his wife, Sarah, live in Holland, Michigan. Their daughter, Victoria, and her two children are frequent visitors to the studio. Current and upcoming installations of Aitken’s work include city exhibits in Hastings, Canton, and Tecumseh, Michigan; University of Toledo; and Carbondale, Colorado. In September, Aitken’s ArtPrize installation will be seen at the Gerald Ford Museum.