Native Arts | Rollie Grandbois

Rollie Grandbois

By Dottie Indyke

On September 12, 2001, Rollie Grandbois stood with his students, a group of adults who had come to New Mexico to learn to carve stone. They were a somber gathering; the day before, the World Trade Center towers had collapsed. Now a medicine man led them in prayer, and then they turned their attention to their slabs of limestone and alabaster. As they worked, their grief and anguish lifted.

After two decades of carving, Grandbois can attest to the healing power of stone. Colossal, weighty, and freshly lifted out of the earth, the hunks of rock are arrestingly handsome and fine to the touch. They assert their presence with cool authority, particularly at the scale at which Grandbois works. One of his largest pieces weighs 23 tons. Moving it required a crane and an 18-wheeler truck.

“So many people burn out on stone,” says Grandbois, who is 51 and divides his time between Santa Fe, NM, and his studio, home, and gallery in Jemez Springs, about an hour southwest. “It is very laborious and expensive. You have to really love it.”

Grandbois does, expressing his affection not only in stone, but also in cast paper and bronze sculptures of mothers and children, bears and eagles, and other imagery based on nature and his background as a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians in North Dakota.

Much of his recent work is purely abstract and semi-abstract, such as his eagle heads that emerge from flowing geometric shapes and slender columns. From translucent onyx he hand-selected at a Utah quarry, Grandbois is carving a sculpture about fire. White, crack-like veins crisscross the surface of the dense orange stone, making it seem in danger of crumbling. He is also reworking a 9,000-pound bear, adding the figure of a medicine man. Made of Texas limestone, the bear was entered into Santa Fe Indian Market’s first monumental sculpture competition, and stood watch over the New Mexico State Capitol building through the 1990s.

“Any serious sculptor’s dream is to do large-scale pieces,” he contends. Unlike many of his peers—who use grinders, hammers, and chisels to painstakingly chip away at stone—Grandbois was one of the first in New Mexico to employ a hydraulic-powered diamond chainsaw. The tool makes the work move much faster, eliminates the dust, and creates less waste.

But of all his skills, his most lasting legacy may well turn out to be his students—and there are hundreds of them. One night around an Oregon campfire, his pupils told him that if he’d teach a workshop in New Mexico, they’d come to study. Thus was born the Southwest Stone Carving Symposium, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. Mostly stone novices, his students come from all walks of life—tough guys in the headstone business who know how to use the tools but want to learn sculpture, octogenarians, and elementary-school kids, all working side-by-side on 350-pound rocks.

“The thrill of teaching is introducing a new medium,” Grandbois says. “For most people, when they think about stone, it scares them. You see someone finishing a piece for the first time, it’s like having a child. It’s this great feeling of accomplishment.”

Leading a group comes naturally to Grandbois, who grew up on the Turtle Mountain Reservation in Belcourt, ND, one of eight kids. His parents took in foster children, and sometimes there were as many as 16 siblings in the house. Life tended to be good on the Grandbois farm, where the kids milked cows, cared for pigs and chickens, and rode horses. “My French godparents made cheese, butter, and ice cream,” he recalls. “We raised all our own feed for stock. We didn’t have electricity or running water until I was 10, and we were one of the first people to get a phone. It was the real farm life … a way of life that’s almost gone in the United States.”

At 18, Grandbois enlisted in the Army. Exposure to the wider world opened his eyes, both to the bigotry that Indian people had to endure, and to their singular place in American culture. His pride in his Native identity grew. Trained as a paratrooper, he made sergeant within two years and taught combat infantry tactics to cadets. He went on to attend the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, where he was student body president. Later, he taught at that Santa Fe art school.

His trainees over the years have been a wildly diverse lot. The most far-flung were those he taught in Japan. The most famous was the singer Bob Dylan, who got a private tutorial in 1998 in his granary-turned-painting studio in Point Dume, CA. Grandbois remembers that Dylan was reluctant at first but then really “got into sculpture and asked a bunch of really good questions.” But of the hundreds of wannabe stone carvers he has tutored, his 14-year-old daughter, Shayna, who has exhibited with him at Indian Market for seven years, holds a special place. “To watch her carving, going through the process, and winning awards makes me so proud,” Grandbois says. “It’s a very powerful thing.”

Grandbois’ work is shown at Santa Fe Indian Market and Eagle Mountain Fine Art Gallery, Jemez Springs, NM.

Featured in “Native Arts” November 2005