Jesse J. Aaron


was a woodcarver of mixed descent (African American, European, and Seminole) who took up art in his eighth decade. The origins of the creative process are oftenambiguous and baffling, but for Aaron they were clear and unmistakable: “Carve wood” were the words he heard at three in the morning in 1968, during a period whenhis wife, Lee Anna, was losing her eyesight. Compelled by a higher power to make art, the former cook, cabinetmaker, and nurseryman quickly became anaccomplished carver of cedar rescued from the swamps and marginal terrain near his Gainesville, Florida, home. The income he earned during his first year of carvinghelped pay for an operation he credited with saving Lee Anna’s vision.Trees on the boundaries of Aaron’s property were his first artworks; the faces carved into the wood changed and became distorted slightly as their living hostsadded rings. Aaron gradually converted his side yard into a “museum” filled with freestanding carvings, ranging from a foot or so to seven feet tall, that he offered for sale. Aaron’s artwork is part of a continuum, encompassing the work of conventional African American carvers such as Elijah Pierce and Ulysses Davis, and “rootsculptors” such as Bessie Harvey and Ralph Griffin. Artists devoted to a single medium, especially wood, often develop an almost preternatural attachment to the act of identifying and selecting their raw material. Aaron preferred to salvage wood himself; the carving was virtually a translation of existing forms, or a negotiation betweenthe natural world and his vision. By the mid-1970s his health began to fail, however, and he relied increasingly on having wood brought to him.As with many sculptors of found wood, Aaron’s subjects tend to be people and animals. Occasionally, hints of social observation and commentary appear, as in acarving of a sheriff restraining a chained, brown prisoner, but most of Aaron’s efforts are true to their generally untitled status. Sometimes they are painted andembellished with other found materials, such as hats, jewelry, dolls’ eyes, and antlers. Their formal strength emerges through a mixing of the cedar’s prior textures andvolumes with a virtuoso blunt carving style that can resemble brushstrokes. The tension between sinuousness and brutal technique lends classic Aaron sculptures anexpressionist pathos that is both tender and anguished. Often the works are stiff and frontal, hallmarks of their former existence as stumps or limbs, but their powerful,semaphore-like movements pulse inside skins as complex as their maker’s.
See also
African American Folk Art (Vernacular Art); Ulysses Davis; Bessie Harvey; Elijah Pierce;

Sculpture, Folk
Arnett, Paul, and William Arnett.
The Tree Gave the Dove a Leaf. Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art of the South,
vol. 1. Atlanta, Ga., 2000.Livingston, Jane, and John Beardsley.
Black Folk Art in America, 1930–1980.
Washington, D.C., 1982