Ayé A. Aton (1940-2017), born Robert Underwood in Versailles, Kentucky, was a muralist, painter, educator, and musician. He was renowned for his outer space-themed murals, which he painted in private homes and on building exteriors throughout Chicago’s South Side from the early 1960s through the early 1970s.
In 1960, Underwood, living in New York, moved to Chicago, around the same time that Sun Ra & His Arkestra made the reverse relocation. Historian and gallerist John Corbett describes what happened next: “Underwood was busy spending time with a study group made up of older men who played checkers in Washington Park on Chicago’s South Side. He was an inquisitive young man, asking deep questions about all manners of obscure topics, and several members of the study group told him about their go-to guy for such queries: a fellow they knew as Sunny Ray, who had recently left town but was best equipped to help Underwood on his quest for knowledge.
“Obtaining Ra’s number, Underwood phoned New York. Ra was immediately receptive, and for the next eleven years, Underwood and he spoke almost daily. Their conversations amounted to an informal mentorship: Ra gave him instructions, guided him, and discussed his research with the budding visual artist. And over the course of that time, a decade in the making, a remarkable and ambitious collaborative effort was mounted in Chicago, heretofore known only to a few private citizens.”
After these conversations began, Underwood—now known as Ayé Aton—began painting ambitious murals in the homes of Chicago’s South Side residents. Aesthetically, he was guided by Ra’s suggestions of Egyptian motifs, colorful abstractions, and outer space imagery. Aton painted murals in dozens of homes and on building exteriors. Photos were taken of the painted walls, though titles, dates, and locations were not chronicled.
Around 1971 he moved to Philadelphia, where he lived in Sun Ra’s communal house in Germantown while he was part of the Arkestra. While there, Aton painted murals in the rooms of Marshall Allen, John Gilmore, and Sun Ra. Three of Aton’s murals were reproduced (credited to “aye”) in Sun Ra’s book of poetry, Extensions Out: The Immeasurable Equation, Vol. II. In 1974, Ayé left the Arkestra and moved back to Chicago.
Aton played drums and percussion with Sun Ra & His Arkestra from 1972-1976, and was part of Ra’s ensemble on the albums Discipline 27-II (1972) and Space is the Place (1973). He also performed extensively with other musicians for several decades. He played percussion with Infinite Spirit Music, who in 1979 recorded the album Live Without Fear (1980), issued by Ancient Afrika Records.
In 1983, he moved to Baton Rouge to become a community arts advocate and play drums in local ensembles, where he lived for over two decades. After receiving a cancer diagnosis in 2016, he moved back to his native Kentucky, where he spent the last year of his life. Wherever he lived and worked, Aton painted steadily. In his final 20 years he produced hundreds of works on canvas, paper, and board. Most of these works have never been publicly exhibited or published.