Michael Qualls was a Chicago based artist known for his abstract found wood and earthwork sculptures. Michael studied art and psychology at Loyola University before transferring to Columbia College where he received his B.A. in 1986. Being a therapist, social activist as well as an artist, he divided his time between doing work in the community and pursuing a career in art.
With influences as diverse as Louise Nevleson, Sam Gilliam and Martin Puryear, Qualls created sculptures with varying shapes and dimensions that presented unique juxtapositions to elicit dialogue about composition, form, balance, and structure.
About his work he stated:
“By allowing a flowing together of Post-Modern American, African and Asian aesthetics, I hope to infuse my work with a confluence of aesthetic values that transcends cultural and personal boundaries.”
Quall’s aesthetic was classed as mixed media. Being predominately a wood assemblage artist, he collected found wood, but with an aesthetic purpose. His materials were mostly comprised of discarded furniture. His process within his studio was to arrange the wood based on size and shape. He was very specific in the types of wood fragments that he used in that normally they were very minimal, simplified shapes. Inspired by Louise Nevelson, Quall’s assembled the simple wood fragments into layer upon layer that made the work very complicated. Qualls and I had a very similar way of collecting materials. We both were known to frequently “dumpster dive” to find what we considered discarded treasures. However, this dumpster diving was always purposeful. Qualls wasn’t looking for just any wood fragments, but rather specific pieces that would fit within his aesthetic.
In his studio space Qualls had boxes, milk crates, and buckets arranged on the floor and shelves that where themselves made of found lumber. The arrangement categories often seemed arbitrary. But upon further inspection, you saw that Qualls was meticulous in his categorization: 3 foot spindles, small cubes and rectangles, large cubes and rectangles, splintered wood, round half circles, large circles, small circles, found colors, natural tones, metal, dirt, and fabric. Each part of his collection was sorted and stored in order for optimal viewing so that he could easily survey his collection and decide the best placement for each collected piece.
The following is an except from is an excerpt from Michael Qualls Ear and Tar series statement:
Every fragment of earth is sacred, holding unfathomable mysteries. In my on going earth and tar series the memory of everyone who has lived is evoked. We think of mass graves as horrifying and indeed the circumstances, which create them, is that. But, essentially we all go to a mass grave. The horror of September 11 brings this reality into sharp relief. We are always breathing the ashes to ashes and dust to dust of all human beings, everywhere, through out time.
These sculptures are meant to stir us to this truth. In the face of this reality is the hope, the vitality, and life force each individual brings, and that we can create as groups. At the heart of each sculpture is the soil element, surround by diverse distinctive patterns and color. While we are all the same, paradoxically, we all make a difference. Each lost life, everywhere, is a loss indeed.
Describing Qualls work in “African Art The Diaspora and Beyond” collector and author Dan Parker writes:
Qualls is a stellar Chicago sculptor, who uses the environment as his palette. Qualls has the uncanny ability to take found wood and soil from the earth and transform them into prized works of sculpture…..”
In each piece he collected, Qualls was considering the larger role they would play once assembled in his work. The decisions made were not arbitrary but rather allowed him to communicate his thoughts on life and death.