Crazy Horse: How Korczak Ziółkowski Began The World’s Biggest Sculpture
default, Crazy Horse Memorial, photo: Mike NelsoNnpap/EPA/PAP, center, chief_crazy_horse_memorial-pap.jpg
In South Dakota’s Black Hills, there is a humongous mountain carving in progress called the ‘Crazy Horse Memorial’. Envisioned by Polish American sculptor Korczak Ziółkowski back in the 1940s, when ready, it’ll show Indian warrior Crazy Horse – and measure in at the biggest sculpture in the world. Culture.pl brings you the story of this amazing project, highlighting its origins, its creators and the meaning it carries.
The man in the mountain
The forest-clad Black Hills in South Dakota and Wyoming are sacred. The Sioux Indians see them as the axis mundi or centre of the world. They’re also home to the largest sculptural project the world has ever seen, specifically the 180-metre high Thunderbird Mountain. It may seem a bit hard to believe at first, but the entire hill is going to be turned into a gigantic statue of the famous Native American warrior Crazy Horse. When ready (which is still very far off – more on that later), the artwork will be 170 metres high and 195 metres long. The work of art will show Crazy Horse upon his steed, pointing into the distance.
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The statue’s subject famously led a band of Lakota (one of the Sioux tribes) warriors to the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876. The battle occurred after the American army broke the Treaty of Fort Laramie from eight years earlier, which recognised the Black Hills as Sioux territory. Having found gold in the mountains, the army was now looking to root the local people out and secure the resource. Led by Lt Col George Custer, the US troops were not prepared for what awaited them at Little Bighorn:
That June, Custer attacked an encampment of Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho on the Little Bighorn River, in what is now Montana. […] Neither he nor the 209 men in his immediate command survived the day, and an Indian counterattack would pin down seven companies of their fellow 7th Cavalrymen on a hilltop over four miles away.
From ‘How the Battle of Little Bighorn Was Won’ by Thomas Powers, ‘Smithsonian Magazine’
Crazy Horse was killed in September the following year by a soldier, during truce negotiations with the American army. His impact was never forgotten and around 60 years after his death, his story would change the life of a Polish American sculptor called Korczak Ziółkowski, a self-proclaimed ‘storyteller in stone’.
Winning first prize
Korczak Ziółkowski was born in Boston in 1908 into a family of Polish descent – his grandfather, Ignacy, was a Polish count who had emigrated to America in the 19th century. Tragically, both of Korczak’s parents died in a boating accident when he was aged only one. The boy was put in a foster home and later adopted by an Irish boxer who mistreated him.
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He left his foster father at the age of 16, and after working his way through technical school, Korczak found employment at the Boston shipyards. It was there that he took a liking for woodworking, eventually creating such wooden pieces as a mahogany grandfather clock or the figurine of an Aztec chief.
Although he never took a lesson in art or sculpture, he studied the masters and began creating plaster and clay studies. In 1932, he used a coal chisel to carve his first portrait, a marble tribute to Judge Frederick Pickering Cabot, the famous Boston juvenile judge who had befriended and encouraged the gifted boy and introduced him to the world of fine arts.
Thanks to the portrait’s skilful execution, the sculptor began receiving commissions, and a number of new pieces followed. In 1939, his marble portrait of eminent Polish pianist and politician Ignacy Paderewski titled Study Of An Immortal (an example of how he never forgot his proud Polish roots) won first prize at the New York World’s Fair.
The same year, Ziółkowski caught the attention of noted sculptor Gutzon Borglum, who asked him to assist in carving the famous stony depictions of Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson and Roosevelt at Mount Rushmore. Since Korczak had admired Borglum’s work since childhood, he quickly accepted the offer – and he would later list Borglum as a major source of inspiration alongside Phidias, Michelangelo, Leonardo and Rodin. That same year, he received another offer that would transform his life even more.
Sioux Indian Chief Henry Standing Bear, having heard about Ziółkowski’s achievements, sent him a letter proposing he carve a memorial in the Black Hills. The chief wrote that ‘My fellow chiefs and I would like the white man to know the red man has great heroes also’.
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Interested in the offer, Korczak began to learn about Crazy Horse’s life and Native American culture, becoming inspired by what he found out. He visited Standing Bear, and together, they searched for an appropriate carving site. However, before he took up the chief’s proposition, he signed up for the army to fight in World War II. Stationed at Omaha Beach, he gained the rank of artillery sergeant and was wounded.
After the war, Korczak turned down a potentially lucrative government offer to build memorials of American soldiers in Europe. Instead, he chose to go back to what he felt was a more important offer: commemorating the Indian War hero Crazy Horse.
Right a little of the wrong
Korczak arrived at the carving site on 3rd May 1947, a place he would become linked to for the rest of his life. He envisioned the whole of Thunderbird Mountain as a gargantuan likeness of Crazy Horse, and he had already decided that he would keep working on it for as long as he could. His starting point was a marble model he had prepared of the would-be memorial. In the 1987 documentary film Korczak and The Crazy Horse Dream by Robb DeWall, the sculptor hints at how he came up with the memorial’s distinctive form:
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When a white trader asked him [Crazy Horse]: ‘Where are your lands’? He pointed over his horse’s head and said: ‘My lands are where my dead lie buried’.
One challenge was that Crazy Horse had never allowed anybody to take his photograph, arguing that it would take part of his soul. Since there was no direct image of him to serve as reference, Korczak had to base the shape of the statue on descriptions from the warrior’s contemporaries.
Though it might be obvious, it’s important to state just how different the meaning of the Crazy Horse Memorial is from that of the Mount Rushmore carvings, which are only a dozen or so kilometres away. The latter are often seen as a tribute to American expansionism, whereas the former pays homage to those who opposed it. Korczak explains in the aforementioned documentary:
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When Standing Bear asked me to tell the story of their great chief who was killed many years ago, I wanted to tell the story of the North American Indian. The blackest mark on the extraction of the American people is the story of the Indian […] if I can carve a mountain that would be one of the great things of the world that would tell the story of a race of people that once lived here which are now practically extinct. […] I want to right a little of the wrong that they did to these people.
An endless sea of rock
Korczak really did stick by his decision to work on the memorial as long as he could. Although the hill was only slightly reminiscent of the shape envisioned upon his death in October 1982, the amount of work he had put into the project was simply overwhelming. Before he even started to carve the mountain, he had to hand-build a log home for himself at the site, at the time a very remote place cut off from roads and electricity.
The re-shaping of the hill officially began on 3rd June 1948 with the so-called dedication blast, attended by two of Crazy Horse’s cousins and many other Native Americans. This would not be the only blast, since, if you want to turn a whole mountain into a sculpture, you wouldn’t use a mere chisel to get the job done. Korczak, who had learned the craft of mountain carving through his involvement with Mount Rushmore, used a jackhammer to drill holes in selected spots, later filling them with dynamite to precisely blast off the granite. The initial dedication blast severed 10 tonnes of rock.
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Already in this early phase, his undertaking (far larger in scope than the comparatively small 18-metre height of the Mount Rushmore carvings) was inspirational to others. Volunteers approached him wanting to see if they could help. Amongst those who helped him back then was Ruth Ross, who ended up becoming his wife in 1950.
Amid the many toilsome and sometimes risky tasks that Korczak executed alongside his volunteers was the building of a 741-step staircase leading to the top, producing a homemade aerial cable car for transporting equipment, and blasting out roads going up the back of the hill. The roads which Korczak started creating in the mid-1950s would let him push away the rubble from his blasts with a bulldozer which he eventually acquired. It wasn’t until 1960, however, that a dozer could drive all the way to the top.
Some insight on how Korczak navigated in the seemingly endless sea of rock he set out to reshape is given by the following quote, found at the Memorial’s official website:
Korczak himself relied on artistic estimates and his incredibly trained eye and natural feel for dimensions and scale. He used a combination of his artistic visual ability, tape measures, and a beautiful old theodolite (survey instrument) to determine the basic location of his model within the mountain and to begin the process of removing excess rock.
Over the years, Korczak removed millions of tonnes of rock from the mountain: by 1976, this amount was estimated at five million…
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The vision of this mover of mountains, and his one-of-a-kind determination to do what initially seemed undoable, led to a large following of supporters. His wife Ruth, with whom he ended up having 10 children, also backed him strongly – helping out with building the log cabin, for example, or the staircase to the mountain top.
A museum, university & Polish Eagle
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A tipi painted by the late Oglala Sioux artist Paha Ska, also known as Orville Francis Salway, at the Crazy Horse Memorial in South Dakota (Museum of North America), photo: Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation
The grand task’s popularity is one of the reasons it can operate entirely independently of government tax money. It has always been financed purely by people who choose to contribute or pay for visiting the site – something that Ziółkowski, a firm believer in free economy, insisted on. He even rejected a $10 million government grant, twice, arguing that accepting it could potentially lead to having to compromise with the state. His steadfastness seems even more amazing when you consider that in the early days, before the Crazy Horse Memorial enjoyed its present popularity, Korczak funded the project through other laborious side projects, like opening a lumber mill or running a dairy cattle farm with his wife.
It was only later that a hotel for visitors, a restaurant and souvenir shop were opened – a modest infrastructure aimed at financing the mountain carving. Due to the appeal of his vision, the number of visiting tourists reached a couple hundred thousand in 1976. Though it ought to be said that it wasn’t Korczak’s intention to create a tourist gimmick.
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As already mentioned, the sculptor wanted to tell a story, a story set in stone. But he also wanted his project to have a deep humanitarian impact. That’s why he envisioned a whole complex around the hill, including a university and medical centre, as well as a museum of Indian culture, all financed from the money generated by the statue. In 1973, this plan started to come to fruition when the Indian Museum of North America opened at the site. According to the memorial’s page, it houses ‘a large collection of art and artefacts reflecting the diverse histories and cultures of over 300 Native Nations’, such as a tipi painted by Lakota artist Orville Francis Salway. Today, the Indian University of North America also operates on the site’s premises.
Korczak’s old log home is now accessible to visitors too and houses an exhibit of his sculptures (regular-sized) – including a marble Polish Eagle, another testimony to Korczak’s appreciation of his Polish roots.
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But Ziółkowski’s final carving was the steel epitaph now on his tomb, which sits at the base of Thunderbird Mountain. It says: ‘KORCZAK Storyteller In Stone May His Remains Be Left Unknown’, pointing to how he was more interested in others than himself. In Korczak and The Crazy Horse Dream, Ruth Ziółkowski says of him:
Nobody can take his place, nobody can do what he did; we can all just try to carry out his plans as he laid them out for the future for all of us.
A couple more dreamers
Aware of the mammoth task he had given himself, Korczak knew all too well that the Crazy Horse Memorial wouldn’t be ready within his lifetime. In the documentary, he says:
What you got to have, I guess, is a couple more dreamers like me that’ll come along and say, well, why not finish it in the olden days, you know.
Anticipating the future, he even prepared three books together with his wife that detailed plans on how to complete the statue without him. After he passed away, it was Ruth Ziółkowski who led the project. It was only under her supervision that the first element of the monument was finished in 1998 – the 66.5-metre tall head of the warrior. Ruth Ziółkowski passed away in 2014, and now it is the second and even third generation of the family that’s continuing the work.
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Korczak’s daughter Monique Ziółkowski is the current mountain carving director, heading a whole team of carvers, although they use more modern techniques than those her father started out with. Three of her siblings are also professionally involved with the memorial, as are four of Korczak’s grandchildren. One of the latter is Kaleb, who commented on the statue in CBS TV’s 2016 broadcast A Mountain Of Work:
Hopefully, a thousand years from now, people will still see it. And it just kind of grounds you to a deeper story of America, that people just maybe won’t be aware of.
The crew estimates that the next element of the memorial, which is still being made on a grant-free principle, will be ready in about five years from now – that’ll be the warrior’s 80-metre long outstretched arm. Due to the enormous amount of work still remaining, it’s hard to predict when the monument will be ready as a whole. Nevertheless, the work-in-progress attracts over a million sightseers annually. In Korczak and The Crazy Horse Dream, Korczak Ziółkowski speaks of a timeframe for completion:
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Maybe it’ll take a hundred years – what difference does it make? Isn’t time relative? One minute, one hour, one year?
Crazy Horse Memorial
Chief Henry Standing Bear
Written by Marek Kępa, Nov 2018