Studio Visits: Sculptor Jason Quigno
Jason Quigno kicks up a lot of dust when he works. So much dust, in fact, that he operates out of the two-story boiler room of a former furniture warehouse. The space is airy with a large garage door that opens to the outside. It’s not just about aesthetics – though the studio gets some great light – Quigno needs a space that fits his art. He’s a stone sculptor, working on pieces of granite, marble, basalt, and limestone that often weigh thousands of pounds.
“The space does matter,” Quigno told Stateside during a visit to his workspace, Asinaabe Studios. “I started to get, like, eight- and 10-foot stones that I could work on in here. In my studio, I have a big I-beam and I have a five ton chain hoist… I’ll get a big stone and I move it in. And I’ll stand it up and I’ll draw out what I want to do… So I have the capability of working on up to a 7,000 pound stone in here that I can move myself.”
Getting to this point in his career took years of hustle and craft. Quigno, a member of the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe, grew up on the reservation in Mt. Pleasant. In a bid to get him to stop causing trouble, his mom signed him up for a stone sculpture class when he was 14 years old. The first piece he carved was a small turtle out of orange alabaster. He was instantly hooked.
“In the beginning, I’d become pretty obsessed with it,” recalled Quigno. “So sometimes I just had to go [to the stone studio] and I’d be there all night. I’d work all the night through to get something done. And yeah, it was exhilarating.”
Quigno said he struggled with substance abuse in his later teens, but stone sculpture became a refuge for him—and a saving grace.
“This kind of saved my life–this sculpture, doing this work. And when I moved down here [to Grand Rapids], I had just gotten out of a … six-month program. And I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I knew I didn’t want to live that life no more,” he explained.
When he first moved from Mt. Pleasant to the Grand Rapids area, he was working out of his garage. But even small sculptures, less than a foot tall, created so much dust that the neighbors started to complain. It would build up on their window screens and get caught in their air conditioning units. So he rented out a studio on the second floor of his current building—before maxing out with the weight of his creations on that studio's wood floors.
“Some of my stones, I had them in a pallet jack, and you could see the wood...It was like a wave, and it was pretty scary. You could hear it creaking across the whole floor.”
Luckily, the factory's floor joists held.
Quigno credits that initial studio with giving him the room he needed to start building bigger pieces and finding commercial success. And it helped him evolve his style artistically, as well.
Like every artist, Quigno has had to balance doing work that is exciting and interesting to him, and doing work that will sell. Those aren't always the same thing. And for Indigenous artists, there can be a certain expectation—and stereotype—of what their art should look like.
The sculptor said sharing his Anishinaabe heritage is a big part of why he does this work. But for a long time, he found that the pieces that sold best were more traditional animal forms like bears, eagles, and turtles—even once his style had evolved to more abstract forms. But that steady flow of income eventually made way for him to focus on the conceptual work he prefers—and for which he is best known.
And even though he is working in the abstract, Quigno's identity and heritage still play a big role in his art.
“There’s certain themes that I use over and over, and they’re embedded into that piece,” said Quigno. “You know, in the Native art world, they see them, they see it. And also it goes beyond, into the institutions and all that… So, like, now I’m trying to mix both of some of those old traditional works.”
A piece he made for Gerald R. Ford airport in 2021 mixes the contemporary designs he focuses on now with the more traditional Anishinaabe imagery of eagles and a turtle that he used to make.
“The base was a turtle, and on its back it had Ojibwe floral designs. And from the middle of its back was a fire and just four flames. And then they swirled up into the four eagles on top. It represented the turtle being the earth, and then the sacred fire, and the four cardinal directions. And then the eagles represented our prayers going to the creator.”
Quigno’s organic forms, figures, and angles are eye-catching. But they also return Anishinaabe culture to the very places it’s been forced out of. Many of the sculptures are on public display in places like airports, college campuses, and downtown Grand Rapids. Using thousands of pounds of stone, Quigno is reaffirming the values and the presence of Michigan’s first people in places for all to see.
“You know, what I do is kind of a new medium,” said Quigno. “We’ve had different art forms throughout the years. You know, we have done some stone work with carving the effigy pipes, some word carving, and the petroglyphs, but not in the way that I’m doing it today, and other sculptors like me… And we want to tell our stories in stone, so they’ll be here for thousands of years.”