Inside The Sculptor’s Studio

This blog entry about the events of Wednesday, June 22, 2011 was originally posted on June 28, 2011.

PART 5 (DAY 7):  There should be no debate on what the most iconic landmark is in South Dakota: Mount Rushmore, the massive rock sculpture carved into a granite cliffside in the Black Hills, standing 60 feet tall (10 times bigger than the makeshift plaster one at Wall Drug), 500 feet above its base. The collective faces of American presidents Washington, Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt, and Honest Abe Lincoln have become a symbol of America, so much that Mount Rushmore has served as a setting in popular movies, from North By Northwest, Hitchcock’s classic tale of espionage, to Team America: World Police, the South Park creators’ marionette-driven satirical musical.  Even if you haven’t seen Team America, you can’t help but think of the title of one of its musical numbers when standing in Rushmore’s presence: “America… Fuck yeah!”

Getting to Mount Rushmore from the Wall Drug store was an easy affair, after driving past all the tourist traps on the way that try to lure motorists away from their regularly-scheduled family vacations.  From I-90 we drove down Highway 16, beyond Reptile Gardens, Bear Country USA, drive-thru safaris with moose behind fenced off areas, lit-up caverns, a Christmas village, Old MacDonald’s Petting Farm, Big Thunder Mines (for kids to pan for fool’s gold), and the National Presidential Wax Museum… all the way to a more woodsy area of the encompassing Black Hills National Forest.

“I see a head!” Cheryl exclaimed as we came around a bend.  We drove up the hill and around the bend to the national monument’s parking lot, and walked through the gates of the park

“It’s so presidential,” I said, walking through the promenade, beyond the columns holding all flags of the fifty states.  It was a short walk from there to the Grand Terrace, where everyone (including Cheryl and me) was taking pictures of and with the heads of the four presidents.  There were a few trails that lead to the base of the rockpile (the remnants of all the sculpting), but Cheryl and I opted out of that and went right inside the sculptor’s studio.

MOUNT RUSHMORE WAS A GOVERNMENT-INITIATED ART PROJECT made from 1927 to 1941, an era when America had emerged as the superpower of the 20th century — a time when American prosperity evolved into American “arrogance and cockiness.”  These are the spoken thoughts of Tom Brokaw, who narrated the history of Mount Rushmore’s creation, in one of the films in the auditorium.  Not surprisingly, Rushmore had controversial beginnings; no one wanted to deface the already majestic Black Hills mountain range, particularly not the perfect cliff face known by the Sioux Indians as the “Six Grandfathers,” but was later known by the White Man as “Mount Rushmore” (after a New York lawyer who had been there in an 1885 expedition).  Under the Coolidge administration, the federal government approved the creation of the monument, and from then there was no turning back. 

Working diligently, a team of sculptors carved the faces out of the rock to prove to all the naysayers that the rockface would still be a thing of beauty.  A few years later, when the face of Washington came to be, people eventually came to admire and respect their efforts of carving faces so lifelike that they even trigger face detection on our digital cameras.

This large-scale attention to detail came from Mount Rushmore’s lead sculptor: Gutzon Borglum, an American-born son of Danish immigrants, who chose Mount Rushmore for the national monument instead of the originally proposed “Needles” rock formation of the Black Hills which he deemed not structurally sound for a sculpture.  After many meetings, Borglum decided this monument of the American spirit would best be embodied by the faces of four of the most noteworthy presidents of the U.S.A.:

  • George Washington, our revolutionary forefather and first president of the union;
  • Thomas Jefferson, the patriot who declared our independence;
  • Theodore Roosevelt, who elevated America on the world stage; and
  • Abraham Lincoln, who held the country together during the Civil War.

Borglum lead a team of 400 sculptors and dynamite explosive experts to blast, chip, and smooth out every nose, cheek, eye ball, and even the frame of Roosevelt’s glasses.  To get a sense of the scale he was dealing with, George Washington’s eye is 11-ft wide. 

Achieving such precision on the side of a mountain didn’t come without lots of practice on a smaller scale — and practice better make perfect when you’re carving the side of a mountain because there is no room for error.  Borglum sculpted many models of the four presidents, one complete one inside the sculptor’s studio, down the path from the Grand Terrace.  The scale model shows Borglum’s original final vision of the four presidents, which included their hands and torsos — something they never completed after America entered WWII and efforts and finances were needed elsewhere.  Perhaps it’s a good thing they never finished, because what’s revealed under the four presidents’ heads show behaviors a little less presidential:

  • George Washington‘s hand is faced downwards as if he’s using a computer mouse, playing on-line Texas Hold’em with his poker face;
  • Thomas Jefferson has his hand upwards with his nose in the air, like he’s some snooty guy trying to order krumpets;
  • Theodore Roosevelt looks like he’s constitpated; and
  • Abraham Lincoln is a collar-poppin’ douchebag.

All kidding aside, it was pretty inspirational being in front of the real thing, for Cheryl as well.  “Do you feel more American?” she asked me, feeling a bit patriotic (even though she was born in Canada).

“Yeah,” I answered.

“It’s silly really,” she said.  It’s funny how simply being at a monument like Rushmore instills a sense of nationality in an American — so much that I went to the gift shop to get a couple of American flags to waveAmerica… fuck yeah!

WHEN VISITING MOUNT RUSHMORE, it shouldn’t be forgotten that these four great men were also total jerks for building a nation on the land of a people that was already there: the American Indians or Native Americans, or however you want to say it and be P.C.  (I’ve heard both are correct.)  No need to feel the guilt because nine miles south, down the road from Mount Rushmore, is the monument of Crazy Horse, a great Sioux warrior and leader of the Oglala Lakota tribe — the embodiment of the greatness of the native people of which this land once used to belong.  “My lands are where my dead lie buried,” he reportedly said.  He is also credited in the victory at Custer’s Last Stand.

“My fellow chiefs and I would like the White Man to know that the Red Man has great heroes, too,” is a quote from tribe leader Standing Bear (also a Lakota chief), who in 1939 asked one of Rushmore’s sculptors to build a bigger and grander monument nearby.  The sculptor he asked was Korczak Ziolkowski, a Polish-American who finished his work on Rushmore and found himself in the Black Hills of South Dakota with “nothing better to do” (according an interview of him in the documentary at the Crazy Horse Monument’s auditorium).  He figured he had nothing to lose, and felt that the least a white guy could do to repay the natives for taking their land was to do them this favor — a favor that would take decades and transform him from your average piledriving Joe and to a guy that looked like Santa Claus.

Ziolkowski started with a small model of Crazy Horse, riding a stallion and pointing his finger out, with his hair flowing back like Fabio on the cover of a romance novel.  With no team other than a couple of onlooking mountain goats, he simply worked on blasting and carving out the monument by himself — a labor of love, originally out of boredom.  Eventually it became his life’s obsession and worked completely by himself until he died in 1982, but fortunately he banged his supportive wife at least ten times in between mountain blasts; they had ten children — seven of which have continued his legacy to continue building the monument.  His wife Ruth maintains the staff til this day.

“They’re never going to finish this,” Cheryl said, the more we learned about the story of the unfinished mountain sculpture.

Ziolkowski believed that the creation of the monument should not be a government one; he believed the feds would skew its intent on being a homage to the American Indians, and had declined an offer of ten million dollars to complete the project — twice.  Ruth continues this policy to this day; the entire creation of the monument is funded by monetary donations, sales from the gift shop, and gifts from explosive experts who donate dynamite.  Cheryl and I donated a couple of bucks.

Ziolkowski spent decades blasting away the mountain by himself without starting on the intricate details; it wasn’t until the 1990s after his sons took over that Crazy Horse’s face was revealed in a grand ceremony.  Almost twenty years later, and the face is still the only recognizable part of what will become the large scale version of smaller models on display within the exhibitionYou can sort of see where the horse’s head is going to be, but that’s about it.  When it’s completed, it will be more than just a frontal facade; plus the giant sculpture will not only be bigger than Mount Rushmore, but viewable from all sides.  Take that, White Man. 

“I can’t wait to see it when it’s finished,” I said, hopeful it would be within my lifetime.  “It’s going to be awesome.”  But with all the intricate details in the scale model, plus the lack of big funding, I don’t know if that will happen.  At least the non-profit group has a lot of support, even from the NYPD, who honored the Ziolkowski’s humanitarian efforts.

In the meantime, the Crazy Horse Monument remains a place to visit when you’re in the Mount Rushmore area, or if you just want to learn more about Native Americans.  There’s a craft market in the exhibition, which has artifacts like Sitting Bull’s famous peace pipe.  There’s also a daily dance show, emceed by a Lakota man who tells corny jokes about the Red Man and White Man:  “[A White Man told the Red Man that they put a man on the moon, and then they said, ‘Oh yeah, we’re going to put a man on the moon too.’  The White Man warned the Red Man that they can’t just go up there because it’s too hot, but the Red Man said, ‘That’s okay, we’ll just go at night.’”]”  The guy on the mic continued, always pointing out the white guy in his anecdotes. 

“I guess when you’re an American Indian, you can just make white guy jokes,” I told Cheryl.

The traditional dance demonstration was put on by kids of the present-day Sioux nation — children and teens who didn’t seem to be enjoying themselves, but seemed to do it out of tribal obligation.  One girl did this traditional knee-bounce dance where she simply bent her knees, going up and down to a rhythm — one that was hardly exciting at all when it was time for her solo. 

“Should we go?” Cheryl whispered to me.


ZIOLKOWSKI’S OVERALL MESSAGE of perservance was summed up by the quote “Never give up on your dreams.”  And that’s what we did; we followed our dreams of making it out west to California, while still seeing some American monuments along the way — natural ones that require no dynamite or federal funds for sculptors.  I drove us west on I-90 and into Wyoming, stopping at dusk in the town of Gilette.  With it’s lack of a decent campground, we had dinner at a good sports bar named Humphrey’s (thanks Yelp), and spent the night in a Super 8 Motel, which fulfilled my dreams of free WiFi and electricity so that I could “recharge, literally.”  It also fulfilled Cheryl’s dream of having a shower, for this would be our last pitstop in the civilization of a city before camping out in the wild of Yellowstone National Park for the next three nights.


Next entry: American Safari

Previous entry: “Roughing It” In The Badlands

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Comments for “Inside The Sculptor's Studio”

  • Greetings from SLC.  I’m finally back where there is constant electricity and a WiFi connection.  Here’s one entry, plus I aim to have another up soon…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/28  at  04:49 AM

  • This is the first time hearing about the Crazy Horse sculpture… awesome… I hope it gets finished… I did a report on Crazy Horse in 8th grade…it was pretty awesome.  I typed it up on WordPerfect!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/28  at  05:58 AM

  • And… Don’t forget to Like The Global Trip on Facebook…

    It’s better than an RSS or Twitter feed…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/28  at  05:59 AM

  • Collar-poppin Abe looks so Miami Vice!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/29  at  05:51 AM

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This blog post is one of sixteen travel dispatches from the trip blog, "The Global Trip: From Sea to Shining Sea," which chronicled a two-and-a-half-week road trip across the U.S.A., from New York to San Francisco, visiting several American national parks and monuments along the way.

Next entry:
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“Roughing It” In The Badlands


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