Enigmatic Creatures

Arkansas artist and 62nd Annual Delta Exhibition Grand Award winner Aaron Calvert’s ceramic figures are decorated with symbols of the things he can’t shake from his mind

Rocket Rabbit
Aaron Calvert, Rocket Rabbit, 2020, stoneware, underglaze, gold ceramic enamel, 19 x 12 x 9 inches

Artist Aaron Calvert’s brightly decorated ceramic figures sit on a shelf in his studio. The wild animals – bears, rabbits, ducks, fish, squirrels – are tucked tightly together. 

“Because of the color and the imagery,” Calvert said, “they flatten out and you lose track of where one begins and the next one – and the last one ends.”

They’re all part of Calvert’s Brain Rattles series. “Brain Rattles – meaning something that enters my consciousness and that I can’t really get rid of,” Calvert said. “They just gnaw on me, and I eventually put them on there. And for some reason, once I get them on there, I feel like they’re kind of gone. It leaves me for a bit. I don’t have to keep thinking about it.”

There are about 20 ceramic animals in the series – including Rocket Rabbit, which is featured in the 62nd Annual Delta Exhibition. Like all the Brain Rattles, the hand-built ceramic rabbit is brushed with bright underglaze patterns, symbols and doodles. The exhibition’s guest juror, Stefanie Fedor, selected Rocket Rabbit as the $2,500 Grand Award winning work. An earlier Brain Rattle, Always Facing South Bear, was shown in the 60th Annual Delta Exhibition in 2018 before being acquired into the Arkansas Arts Center Foundation Collection. 

Calvert’s simplified animal forms are impeccable – but it’s the bright colors of the surface decoration that catch the eye. Calvert sketches on paper – he has stacks of pages and pages of drawings – before transferring them onto clay surfaces. The doodles come from everywhere – headlines or stories or moments of life will spark curiosity about the visual manifestation of an idea. 

“Sometimes they’re just mundane things,” he said. “On the Always Facing South Bear, there’s a frying pan with some bacon in it. It really means nothing – besides a frying pan with bacon in it.”

Always Facing South Bear by Aaron Calvert
Aaron Calvert, American (Medina, Ohio, 1973 – ), Always Facing South Bear, 2017, glazed stoneware, 40 x 23 x 13 inches, Arkansas Arts Center Foundation Collection: Purchase. 2018.013

There are patterns and constellations and morse code. There’s political commentary and images ripped from headlines. But on the same work, a viewer will find deeply personal things – a beach ball in memory of his late cousin and a drawing of a model rocket built with his daughter.  

“I’ll just mash it all together,” he said.

The chaotic exteriors of these works are unknowable. They are packed with signs and symbols  – and Calvert doesn’t always like to explain what he meant with every individual detail. It’s often best, he says, to let viewers puzzle their way through the decoration on their own. 

But the colorful drawings on the exterior of the clay surfaces aren’t the only enigmatic element of the Brain Rattles. To create eyes for his animals, Calvert carves holes – perfectly round – in the clay skin of the figure.

“Clay usually isn’t something that we look through,” he said. “It’s usually just solid – or appears to be solid.”

Rocket Rabbit and Always Facing South Bear’s eyes draw the viewer into the figure’s dark interior. If the eyes are the window to the soul, the souls of Calvert’s works are infinitely more unknowable than their deliriously patterned exteriors. 

Rocket Rabbit by Aaron Calvert
Aaron Calvert, Rocket Rabbit, 2020, stoneware, underglaze, gold ceramic enamel, 19 x 12 x 9 inches

The skin of Calvert’s Brain Rattles are confounding in their cacophony of symbols and patterns and color and noise. But it’s in the unknowable depths behind their eyes that we, as viewers, find a true mystery.

– Maria Davison, Communications Manager