‘Those are places that feel to me almost like ruins’

Mining culture of Iron Range inspires local artist Aaron Squadroni

By Kassandra Tuten

Herald-Review

“It’s monumental stuff,” said designer and artist Aaron Squadroni of the impact of the mining industry on the Mesabi Iron Range.

The mines have an impact on the Range that Squadroni says is visible both in the landscape as well as in the culture, and it is one which he seeks to explore through his artwork.

Squadroni, originally from Buffalo, Minn., moved to the Iron Range seven years ago. Since that time, he has been very interested in both the mines and the greater mining culture that exists in Northern Minnesota, both of which have served as fodder for his works. Focusing on themes of nature, industry and memory, Squadroni creates artworks that seek to explore both the visible and unseen tensions in the mining landscape.

After receiving a Bachelor of Arts from St. Olaf College in studio art and philosophy, Squadroni attended the University of Minnesota where he received a Master’s in Architecture. It is this background, he said, which influences much of the art he produces.

Squadroni spends many of his days exploring the landscape of the region in which he currently lives, and creating art that is inspired by the places he encounters during his outings. Locations such as the Hull Rust Mine in Hibbing and the Jessie Mine in Coleraine are just two of the many locations which have “spoken” to Squadroni as an artist.

His methods for producing his pieces often involve metalpoint drawing combined with found mine materials such as overburden rock, tailings, and taconite pellets. Much of Squadroni’s previous work has illustrated the vastness of scale of the mining industry, encompassing everything from the machinery used in the work to the sheer size of the holes made in the ground during the extraction process.

Squadroni, who resides in Coleraine, is currently an adjunct faculty member at Itasca Community College in Grand Rapids. He has received several grants in support of his work, and his artwork has been exhibited regionally and received recognition for excellence in Minnesota. Squadroni’s previous design experience has allowed him to produce public art that combines landscape, furniture and sculpture for the cities of Grand Rapids, Coleraine and Chisholm.

Most recently, Squadroni’s work includes a mining-themed sculpture which is on display at Lake Street Pocket Park in Chisholm. Squadroni created the sculpture at the Iron Range Makerspace facility in Hibbing, with assistance from fellow artist David Dobbs.

To learn more about Squadroni, or to view examples of his work, visit his website at www.aaronsquadroni.com

Herald-Review: Can you speak briefly as to why you selected the mining industry as your subject matter?

Squadroni:I think some of the elements that drew me to the mines as subject matter are the kind of iconic elements of the mining landscape, the deep red colors, the huge scale of everything, and then the cultural importance in this area; the economic importance that mining has played. It’s kind of larger than life. It’s like going and looking at some huge natural process that would normally take thousands of years to be created, and in this case, human beings have done it in a matter of 100 years or less.

There’s a lot of aspects as to why it’s interesting to me, and what I think I’m doing by studying it.

Herald-Review: Can you explain this a bit more?

Squadroni:I am interested in the landscape wherever I am partly because I enjoy spending time outside and also because there is always something illuminating or surprising if I am observant enough.

The mining landscape is interesting to me because of its iconic size and color, its connection to the culture of the Iron Range, and the interactions it creates between nature and industry.

I guess one other important thing is that, as a person with a master’s degree in architecture, I’m interested in the physical world and sort of exploring it; actually going out into the mines, biking and running on trails and walking around and photographing different things.

Herald-Review: And how does this idea translate into your artwork?

Squadroni:To me, it’s an interesting and exciting thing to go off and not have a plan for where you’re going. You just follow trails and end up in this place that you didn't even know existed. So part of it for me is I like that exploration process of actually just going into some of the abandoned mines or finding some of the old rusted out mining equipment that’s still laying around at some of the sites.

I think about my drawings in kind of a similar way. For me, the interesting thing about drawing is using it to explore ideas. For me, the drawing process feels similar to the process of actually being out in the mine and exploring the mine and finding surprises.

Usually, in a drawing, I start in one area and I’m sort of exploring things such as textures and how to express the mining imagery, and my own ideas and thoughts about the mines. Through that process, I usually come to new understanding about what it is I’m doing and how it relates to me. Usually, that is exciting during parts of it, and there's obviously a lot of hard work in between those times. But it feels like you’re making discoveries in the visual world.

Herald-Review: Can you speak briefly about your process in creating this artwork?

Squadroni:Most of my artwork while I have been Up North on the Iron Range, which has been about seven years, has been drawing. Anything that’s not public art has been drawing. Everything I’ve shown in exhibits has been drawings, and I think the reason that I have been interested in that medium is because of its simplicity. You just need a pencil and a piece of paper and you can create strong contrast and stark images. It’s very much boiled down to the essentials, and for me, that fits with the ruggedness of the mining landscape. There’s no extra bells and whistles, no extra frills. A mine is something that’s engineered and the extraction process is efficient, and there’s nothing fancy about it.

Herald-Review: And how has your art evolved?

Squadroni:The way that I have created the drawings has evolved as I’ve continued to explore the mining subject matter, and it’s basically evolved to now include some color. But the only color it includes is color that is created from material related to mining. I still draw, but I now draw with a wider range of things such as taconite tailings, taconite pellets, rocks from the mine, steel, basically anything I find at the mine or is a product of mining, and to me, that’s a sort of interesting way to add some color but do it in a way that I feel is still really connected to the mining subject.

Herald-Review: You mentioned enjoying getting out there and exploring your surroundings. Is there one location you keep going back to that really speaks to you artistically?

Squadroni: Well, there’s a couple factors in the areas that I’m going to: One is where I live and work. I’ve explored more area around Coleraine such as the Jessie Mine and the Canisteo Mine Pit, which is now kind of off-limits. So part of it is where I live. I like exploring what’s around me and becoming familiar with it.

I worked in Hibbing for a couple of years, and so during my lunch breaks, I’d go running out around the Hull Rust Mine Pit, so that’s another area I’ve explored quite a bit and taken an interest in. So part of it is just practical: Where can you even go?

But I guess I like areas where there’s evidence that people were there doing something, so I usually gravitate to areas with abandoned footings of buildings, or parts of old equipment. Those are places that feel to me almost like ruins. It feels really ancient, but in reality it’s not that old.

Herald-Review: So, what’s next for you creatively?

Squadroni: I am working on a series of drawings that relate to the Canisteo Mine Pit in Coleraine that will be shown at the Duluth Art Institute in September and October this fall.

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