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10 in 10 with University of Minnesota's Aidan Dillon

Changing strokes from freestyle to charcoal.

by Karl Ortegon
August 20, 2021

For the better part of his life, Aidan Dillon has spent his days staring at a black line on the bottom of whatever pool he was training in. Raised in Evanston, Illinois, and growing up as a competitive swimmer, he quickly became accustomed to the intense regimen that the sport requires. He started to wake up before 6am for practice as soon as he became a teenager, his weekends were booked with swim meets, and before he knew it, he had parlayed his high school success as a distance specialist into a spot on the University of Minnesota swimming and diving team.

It was the pandemic’s shutdown of pools that offered Aidan his first real break from the sport. Suddenly, his identity was no longer bound to this notion of being a Division I NCAA athlete, and he realized painting, which had always been a beloved but shoved-to-the-side hobby, was the passion he wanted to prioritize.

And so he quit swimming. Yes, quit. And with no regrets. And now, he’s forging a new path, inspired heavily by graffiti and urban landscapes and the stories they tell. You might say he’s left the monochromatic chlorine blue of his pool days for the explosion of color of the streets outside.

Quadio caught up with Aidan recently to talk about the Minneapolis art scene, the thrill and mystery of graffiti, the “easy love” of art, and how he felt when a former U of M teammate won an Olympic gold medal in Tokyo.  

Compare this summer to last summer. 

Better. I’m in Minneapolis, and not only has the pandemic become more bearable, but I also have had my first full summer where I’m not thinking about swimming. I have an internship working in alternative transportation that’ll count towards my Urban Studies degree — much to do with biking and cyclist paths and how that operates in the city in relation to car, transit and pedestrian traffic. I have really flexible hours so I’m still able to do stuff other than work, like art, which has been awesome. Last summer I didn’t have a job, and while it gave me more time for art, I was getting kind of stir-crazy. 

Do you have any regrets about quitting swimming?

I have no regrets about college swimming. I was literally thinking about this right before this interview. I thought, "Okay. If I didn't swim in college, maybe there would have been a chance that I would have gone into an art degree or an art program or actually fulfilled an architecture degree." I definitely stayed away from that because of swimming. And I think there's always been a weird balance of like, "Okay, I'm an athlete and I'm a swimmer, but I'm also an artist." Swimming always used to come first, it was a no-brainer, and for a while I didn’t question it.

But in the fall, I had a show back home in Evanston, through Evanston Made — I couldn’t go because of the swim season, which sucked. My mom had to be there on my behalf answering questions for people about my art, and it was a bummer. That really got me thinking more like, "Okay, I might be done." 

How did COVID-19 play into the end of your swimming career?

Because of the pandemic, I took five months off of the sport. It was really my first long break from the sport in over a decade, and I got a taste of what my life could be like without it. I was producing and doing so much work and totally enjoying myself until fall 2020 came around, and it seemed that the 2020-21 swim season would go on despite the pandemic. I remember thinking, "Oh God. Let's see if I can actually get through this, because I really enjoyed the last five or six months where I didn't have to do ANY of that." It was just hard. I was trying to meet my own expectations and my own standards, as well as my coaches’. I was extremely out of swimming shape. I wasn't motivated. Mentally, I couldn’t shake the thought, "Okay. If I wasn't swimming, I could be doing art. I could be having that life."

I still really loved the sport, and I loved being on the team, and I didn't want to quit. In a perfect world, I would still be swimming, but obviously right now the world is not perfect. At the end of the season this past winter, my coach said to all of us, "This year has been tough and next year is not going to be any easier. I want everyone to evaluate their relationship with the sport and if you can give 110% to this team." And I just immediately knew, I was like, "Yeah. There's no way I can give that." Once I felt it that viscerally and made the call, I knew I was doing the right thing for me.

Can you compare the love that you have for swimming with the love that you have for art?

With swimming, I felt like I had to give all of my love to it. I didn’t feel like I had a choice. Most people seemed to know me as an athlete before they knew me as an artist. These outside pressures on me said that my athleticism defined me — that was what I was being rewarded for when I went a best time, won a race, earned a spot on a major D1 program and so on. I either had to be an athlete or an artist, and I didn’t feel like I could be both, so I kept art low-key. At first, I didn't tell anyone about my art, nor did I give my time and energy to it, which sucked.

So when COVID came and I wasn't swimming, I was able to give time to art. It was an easy love that felt like it was coming from me and me alone. I’d been a competitive swimmer for years, and finally I didn’t have to be. I thought about art, "I really like doing this. How have I not been doing this?" You know?

Without ever having professional training in anything art-related, were there other external factors that pushed you to make time for your art?

My high school art teachers saw something in what I was making — if they hadn’t, I don’t think they would’ve been as adamant as they were about me pursuing AP studio art. I was really not seeing myself as an artist back then, at least not seriously. The idea of taking an AP class just for art felt like a big leap for me at the time. I had a moment in October, mid-way through the semester of senior year, where I went to my teacher, Ms. Seibold, because I didn’t think I was going to make it through the class. It was so much work and I was going on recruiting trips to different schools for swimming — I just wanted to drop the class. She basically told me that everything was fine, I could turn things in late, and that I should just push through, so I did. That class was really formative for me, because it helped me hone my style and what mediums I like to work with, which are acrylic, charcoal and ink.

Do you ever wonder if you’d benefit from professional training? Or wonder how your art might look if you pursued that? Or are you more thinking, "I'm good on my own.”

A lot of times with very established artists, they go to college for art, maybe it’s a fine art degree. They spend four years actually training in a specific art form, like painting or sculpture, for example. But my outlook is, while there’s nothing wrong with that at all, it just hasn’t been my path. I have a year left of my undergrad degree, and with just an AP class in high school under my belt as far as serious art education goes, I’ve been able to make my art and sell it and love the entire process. I have developed my own voice and skillset just through my own exploration, and I don’t want to mess with that. It’s all on my own time, and it’s not even about selling it or having people love it — I‘ve always painted and made art for myself. I value the enjoyment I get out of it more than my technical abilities or how sellable my work is. 

You’re in an Urban Studies and Landscape Design program at U of M. How do aspects of that concentration interplay with your art and your vision? 

With urban studies, in particular, it's really fascinating to learn about communities and the social fabrics of cities. I've always felt that my work speaks to urban influence and architecture, especially since I love to make collages that include so many different concepts and shapes. I love incorporating buildings into my art and other sights I see on the streets — I used a building to craft one of my most recent pieces, actually. My degree program has helped open my eyes and understand what an urban, social community is — and graffiti is a huge part of that. I think people have their opinions on graffiti, oftentimes negative opinions, but I've been so fascinated with graffiti because I think it's an interesting reflection of society. 

What's it like navigating abstract art, where it's up to you to decide what you're making and how you execute it? Do you ever get lost in it?

This won’t be a surprise, but it can be tricky. I definitely have pieces that are just not good — or at least, I don't think they’re good. But I try to put myself in situations that purposefully challenge me and my work, so I can see what comes of that. I'll do a composition or I'll use colors that I know are going to be hard to bring together. I've always enjoyed the process of figuring it out like it's a puzzle. I’ll say, "Okay. I've got all these shapes and colors, how am I going to make this look complete? And how am I going to bring all this together?" 

Sometimes I'll do a whole piece in four hours, other pieces will take months. My most recent piece, I thought that I had finished in November. That’s an example of my process sort of taking the reins, and it was frustrating because I would look at it month after month and think, "Ah. It's just not it. It's just not good." So I kept working on it and there were so many iterations and I did so many different things to it, and then eventually I was like, "Okay, this looks done now." Since I'm not professionally trained and it is abstract art and it's my art, I get to make the decisions. I don't have anyone telling me what's right or wrong. That’s what I love about doing abstract art — it just is what it is.

What’s most appealing about Minneapolis from an artist’s standpoint? 

Well, there's a great graffiti scene, or maybe culture is the right word. The great thing about that is it's anonymous. I don't know who these people are, but I know what their artist tags are — like signatures — and I know how they spray paint. I'll see it all over campus and all over Minneapolis. It’s fun for many reasons, one being the anonymity of it — I have my speculations about who is who. There’s also something cyclical and time-warpy about this one spot by my place that’s under a bridge. People will tag the whole wall and it'll be up for a couple of weeks, then the city will come and paint over it, and it becomes a blank canvas again. This whole graffiti wall will be on display for a limited time, and many people will just walk by not thinking twice — before you know it, it disappears under a coat of paint and then another collection of work can go up with different artists and new creations. It’s constantly being reshaped and reimagined. 

Bowen Becker, your former teammate, just won an Olympic gold medal swimming in Tokyo. What was it like watching that come to life?

It’s crazy because he effectively retired a year and a half ago. He graduated from Minnesota in 2019 after finishing runner-up in the 100 free at NCAAs, and he kinda stuck with it that first year after college, but COVID hit and he was done. I saw him in March 2020, and he told me that he was moving on from the sport. But then in the fall, a coach at the International Swimming League (ISL), the new pro league for swimming, called him up and asked him to be on the team because some athletes couldn’t participate due to COVID travel restrictions in their country. So he came to Minnesota in September 2020 and just trained for a month with us, and since Tokyo got moved to this summer, he just stayed and trained for the Olympic Trials with us after the ISL season ended. He went from totally being out of swimming shape to being a beast in practice. And then at Trials he kept going faster with each swim, and then suddenly he was qualifying for the U.S. team in the 4x100 free relay, and then there he was racing at Tokyo. He was fast enough in prelims to be chosen to swim on the relay in finals, and that relay won gold, which was just… unbelievable. I’m so happy for him. He's always been such a good guy — he was the senior who would invite us freshmen over to hang out. I’d even dog-sit for him with his Corgi.