Calvin Ma’s “Blend In: Between the Lines”

Wednesday, August 31, 2022 8:41 PM | Debbi Lester (Administrator)

The intricate and fanciful sculptures of Calvin Ma are on view at Foster/White Gallery in Seattle, in a show that runs the month of September. New pieces from the San Francisco-based sculptor Calvin Ma are extensions of the “Blend In” series that has absorbed him in recent years. This on-going project centers on bird-human figures in varied settings and poses; these figures are provocative, though not all viewers will be provoked in the same way, as Ma himself has observed with some amusement.

Ma’s craftsmanship is on display, his mastery of color and form, but it’s not just a question of technique: the work attains a psychological richness with its enigmatic imagery. The precision of the craft enhances the aura of intimacy or vulnerability that Ma’s work brings about. Ma keeps things light-hearted with his geekery, and with his vivid celebrations of color, shape, and pattern. 

The foremost feature in the “Blend In” series is the merger of bird and human form. Where does one stop and the other begin? Is one a mask for the other? Are the two beings companions, or in opposition? 

Avian/humanoid fusion is of course ancient material, and deeply archetypal. We think of falcon-headed Horus in ancient Egypt, or the winged figures in Greek mythology. But Ma seems less interested in historical echoes than in contemporary fixations: his inspirations are comic book superheroes (with their wing-like capes draped about them) and the action-figures of his boyhood—the

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were a particularly strong formative influence on Ma. 

This is an artist whose geek game is a strong. An early boost to Ma’s career came in 2014 when his work appeared in the “Geek-Art” anthology published by Chronicle Books. Ma still gives a bulbous look to the leg joints of his “Blend In” figures—you’d think the joints are articulated in standard action-figure style. But these limbs are in no way pliable or posable (not that I touched the artwork to find out!). 

When Ma deploys a bulbous form where the legs don’t bend, we can suppose it simply looks and feels right to him; as a child he escaped with his action figures into flights of imagination, and went on to dream of working for the Mattel or Hasbro toy companies. Ma underscores that these early activities were highly tactile experiences; this may explain another characteristic of his work, that each facet of each pattern in his designs is finely textured and (often) complexly colored. Look closely. The amount of carving and incising and brushing that go into any one piece is astounding to consider. 

The theme of disguise has always been present in Ma’s work, just as it is in the Ninja Turtles and the superheroes of his boyhood. What Ma wants to disguise or defend against is his social anxieties, the awkward shyness he’s struggled with since childhood, and which he feels hindered by to this day. “Being shy, timid, and a bit socially awkward is something that will always be a part of me,” Ma stated in 2020. “The goal is to come to terms with it and grow from it.” He draws a connection between the stiffness he feels within himself during social encounters and the stiffness of his ceramic figures—they are inarticulate. 

As for the avian element, birds appear to be more than just a convenient vessel for Ma’s investigations but a personal passion. Diverse breeds have migrated into the “Blend In” series—owls, ravens, even tropical birds. They add visual variety to the menagerie, prompting Ma to explore delightful new shapes and color schemes. Ma remains faithful to natural coloration and yet he’s inventive in his arrangement of those colors; when it comes to orchestrating color harmonies within each piece, he’s a maestro.

Depictions of habitat are an important dimension in Ma’s world, and a relatively recent one. In earlier projects like “Homebodies,” his figures stood alone, isolated from surroundings. More recently his figures appear within a larger composition, the bounds of which are defined by an array of smaller ceramic pieces—sometimes dozens of them. These nature elements sit below or above, behind or around the figure, as in a diorama. We see the abstracted branches a bird might perch on or nest in (“Between the Lines”) or spacious displays of protective leaves or nourishing flowers (as in “Leave No Trace” and “New Growth”). Each leaf, branch, and blossom is hand-built and individuated. Ma presents more than a character, but a setting and a scene, a drama of sorts. The story taking place is yours to imagine; for Ma they likely are to do with a stressful social engagement. By strewing flowers and leaves and other presences in this way, Ma opens out both spatially and emotionally; as visuals, the habitat arrangements express spontaneity, fluidity, and openness, in contrast to the tightness that defines and confines the figure. These scenes breathe and achieve balance. With these qualities activated it seems that Ma is making progress along an arduous path.

Tom McDonald

Tom McDonald is a writer and musician living on Bainbridge Island, Washington.

Calvin Ma’s exhibit “Blend In: Between the Lines” is on view at Foster/White Gallery, located at 220 Third Avenue South in Seattle, Washington, Tuesday through Saturday from 10 A.M. to 6 P.M.  For information, visit

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