Encyclopedia of American Folk Art

By Gerard C.Wertkin; Lee Kogan | Go to book overview
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AARON, JESSE J. (1887-1979)

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 often ambiguous 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 when his wife, Lee Anna, was losing her eyesight. Compelled by a higher power to make art, the former cook, cabinetmaker, and nurseryman quickly became an accomplished carver of cedar rescued from the swamps and marginal terrain near his Gainesville, Florida, home. The income he earned during his first year of carving helped 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 hosts added 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 "root sculptors" 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 between the 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 a carving 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 and embellished 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 and volumes with a virtuoso blunt carving style that can resemble brushstrokes. The tension between sinuousness and brutal technique lends classic Aaron sculptures an expressionist 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.



is built around the important American folk art collection of Abby Aldrich Rockefeller (1874-1948), the wife of John D. Rockefeller Jr. (1874-1960). Rockefeller's husband funded the restoration of Virginia's colonial capital, and the museum is one of five that compose Colonial Williamsburg. In 1935, Rockefeller loaned a portion of her collection to Colonial Williamsburg for exhibition in the Ludwell-Paradise House, an eighteenth-century building; she donated those objects to Colonial Williamsburg in 1939. The collection remained on exhibit in the Ludwell-Paradise House until 1956.


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