A tale of two mountains

It’s quite a goal to turn a mountain into a sculpture. The Black Hills have done it once, and 17 miles down the road, they are doing it a second time.

Mount Rushmore was started in 1927. South Dakota state historian Doane Robinson wanted to attract visitors to the state and approached Gutzon Borglum to do the carving. Borglum was friends with French sculptor Rodin and previously worked on Stone Mountain in Georgia, so his street cred was pretty high.

It took 14 years to carve those presidential heads, and nearly a million dollars. Some state, some federal, and some private. Most of the work was done during the Great Depression and they had to pause once in a while for lack of funds.

Almost a half million tons of rock were removed, 90 percent of it using dynamite, and the sculpture that remains is 60 feet tall. But it was supposed to be bigger.

Borglum’s plans called for the carving to include shoulders and torsos down to the waist, but while they were working, it was clear the mountain wouldn’t support it. Jefferson started out on the left side of Washington, but the rock was not good enough, so after a year’s work, they blasted his face off the mountain and moved him to the right. When carving Roosevelt, they had to remove 75 feet of rock before they found good material.

Most people who look at Rushmore, are impressed and consider it a success. But I wonder about Borglum. Would he have been pleased, or would he have been consumed by the struggles?

In 1948 sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski began carving a mountain into Crazy Horse just down the road. It was an invitation from Chief Standing Bear who wanted “the white man to know the red man has great heroes also.” 65 years later the effort is a family affair. Korczak is gone but his children continue the work.

Korczak had carved on Rushmore, so his street cred was pretty good too. When he started blasting on his mountain he had just $174 to his name and finances have dogged the project throughout. Twice Korczak turned down government money because he believed if the people wanted the sculpture, they would support it.

Before he died, he told his wife Ruth, “You must work on the mountain-but go slowly so you do it right.”

I look at the completed model and I worry. Will the mountain take the carving the way Korczak intended? Will the rock support the large open space under Crazy Horse’s arm? Only time will tell.

There is a fine line between visionary and foolish. And while you do the work, there is no guarantee which side of that line you will land on. Critics hated the idea of Mount Rushmore, and then they marveled.

When Crazy Horse it complete, it will be 563 feet high, and the largest sculpture in the world. I hope I get to see it.

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