Ziolkowski, Korczak

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Korczak Ziolkowski


Name pronounced "Core-jock Jewel-cuff-ski"; born September 6, 1908, in Boston, MA; died October 20, 1982, in Sturgis, SD; son of Joseph and Anne Ziolkowski; married Ruth Ross, 1950; children: John, Dawn, Adam, Jadwiga, Casimir, Anne, Mark, Marinka, Joel, Monique. Education: Attended Rindge Technical School (Cambridge, MA).


Self-taught sculptor. Mount Rushmore National Monument, assistant to Gutzon Borglum, 1939. Commissions and other works include "Paderewski: Study of an Immortal" (marble statue), 1939; Noah Webster statue, West Hartford, CT, 1941-42; Crazy Horse Memorial, Thunderhead, SD, 1947-82; Wild Bill Hickok statue, Deadwood, SD, 1952; and Sitting Bull Memorial, 1953-55. Founder, Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation, 1948, Crazy Horse School, 1962, Indian Museum, 1972, and Crazy Horse Memorial Indian scholarship program, 1978. Exhibitions: "Paderewski: Study of an Immortal," exhibited at World's Fair, New York, NY, 1939. Military service: Served in U.S. military, 1943-45; landed at Omaha Beach.


National Sculpture Society.

Awards, Honors

First place, New York World's Fair, 1939, for "Paderewski: Study of an Immortal"; Trustee Award, National Western Heritage and Cowboy Hall of Fame, 1974; Korczak Day (May 3) named in sculptor's honor, state of South Dakota, 1983. Honorary doctorates from Fairfield University, 1970, and Black Hills State College, 1981.


Author of "Crazy Horse Poem," for Crazy Horse Memorial, Thunderhead, SD.


"Fifty years ago, people in South Dakota's Black Hills thought Korczak Ziolkowski had rocks in his head," wrote Beth Gauper of the Seattle Times in discussing the 1998 celebration of the ambitious sculptor's Crazy Horse Memorial. "Today," Gauper added, "his rock is a head that more than a million people come to see each year." Ziolkowski dedicated more than three decades of his life to this still-uncompleted, monumental memorial to the Oglala Lakota Sioux warrior who defeated U.S. Cavalry General George Custer at the Little Big Horn. Located in the Black Hills of South Dakota, less than twenty miles from Mount Rushmore, Ziolkowski's memorial is intended to be ten times larger than the nearby one honoring four presidents. The first blasting began on the memorial in 1948; by the time of Ziolkowski's death in 1982, the artist had removed over eight million tons of granite from Thunder-head Mountain, the site he personally purchased for the mammoth project. Much of the back-breaking work had been done by him in the early years; a family of ten children and his wife helped out, as did a staff of volunteers, donations from corporations and individuals alike, and entrance fees to the site.

A self-admitted "storyteller in stone," Ziolkowski dreamed on a large scale, envisioning a total complex dedicated to Native Americans, including the 641-foot-long by 563-foot-high statue itself, a museum, medical training center, library, and even a 7,000-foot runway for a proposed airport. Even on his deathbed—his body battered and broken at age seventy-four from years of bone-crushing work—Ziolokowski was still immersed in his massive plan, telling his wife Ruth, as noted on the Crazy Horse Memorial Web site, "You must work on the mountain—but go slowly so you do it right." Paul Hendrickson observed in the Washington Post that the Crazy Horse Memorial could take another fifty years to complete after its initial half-century of work. "By the end, if it gets that far, Crazy Horse will be on his racing steed, arm outstretched, pointing to the lands where his beloved Sioux lie buried, the largest mountain sculpture in the world," Hendrickson wrote. To give an idea of the size of the proposed statue, Hendrickson added, "The arm will be 263 feet long. The feather in his flying hair will be 44 feet high."

Self-taught Sculptor

Born in Boston, Massachusetts, on September 6, 1908, Ziolkowski was the son of Polish immigrants who died in an accident when their child was only one year old. Subsequently, the orphan was raised by foster parents in a series of different homes where he was often mistreated and physically abused. One of his foster fathers had the young boy working in heavy construction, an apprenticeship that later stood Ziolkowski in good stead when he decided to sculpt an entire mountain. As a sixteen year old, he worked his way through the Rindge Technical School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, thereafter serving as a patternmaker in Boston's shipyards. All the while the youngster was entranced with sculpture and woodworking, creating furniture and even constructing a grandfather's clock from dozens of pieces of Costa Rican mahogany. Though he never took formal instruction, he was soon sculpting in wood, clay, and stone. Encouraged in the arts by Judge Frederick Pickering Cabot, young Ziolkowski repaid such kindness and support by carving a life-size Carrara marble sculpture of the judge, completed in 1932.

By the early 1930s Ziolkowski had moved south to West Hartford, Connecticut, where he opened a sculpture studio and began making a living from commissioned pieces throughout New England. The high point in this early part of his career came with his sculpture of the famous Polish pianist and patriot, Ignacy Paderewski. Hewn out of a half-ton of Carrara marble in less than a week, this twice-life-size bust was titled "Paderewski: Study of an Immortal," and won first prize, by popular vote, at New York's World's Fair in 1939. It was this prized work, as well his interest in the then-ongoing construction of the Mount Rushmore National Monument, that attracted the interest of a Sioux tribal elder. Chief Henry Standing Bear wrote to Ziolkowski, explaining that he and other chiefs would like white men to know that Native Americans also had their heroes and inviting the New England scupltor to carve a giant statue of Crazy Horse in the Black Hills of South Dakota, a sacred area to the Sioux. That Ziolkowski was born on the date that Crazy Horse was killed was a good omen for the Indian elders.

Ziolkowski was tempted by the offer, and that summer he worked with Gutzon Borglum on the Mount Rushmore monument, begun in 1927, to get a sense of the work involved in such an undertaking. In 1940 he went to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota to meet with Chief Henry Standing Bear, and learned more about the enigmatic Indian warrior, Crazy Horse. This battler for his people was an independent sort, never allowing himself to be photographed or even sketched. Thus, any memorial to him would have to be generic, representing all the Indians of North America rather than one man. Murdered—stabbed in the back by an American soldier while in captivity—Crazy Horse became a symbol of resistance to his people. An Indian medicine man noted that Crazy Horse had predicted he would come back in stone. What more fitting remembrance, then, than a granite monument honoring him and his people? All of this intrigued the sculptor, who in his own way was as independent-minded a visionary as was Crazy Horse. While visiting the reservation, Ziolkowski fashioned a clay model of a potential monument, a figure of an Indian on horseback with his right arm outstretched, a physical answer to a derisive question from a white as to where the Indian lands were now that the whites had conquered them. Crazy Horse implies with his outstretched arm—later to become the left one—that his lands are wherever his people were buried.

Back in Connecticut, thoughts of the Indian memorial were put on hold as Ziolkowski worked on another twice-life-size statue, that of colonial grammarian Noah Webster, which was intended as a gift to the town of West Hartford. He was assisted in this project by a young student named Ruth Ross, whom he would later marry. With the outbreak of World War II Ziolkowski put his artistic career on hold; volunteering for the U.S. military, he landed in France with the invasion forces at Omaha Beach and was later wounded. At the end of the war he turned down a government commission to create war memorials in Europe. He had made up his mind: he was going to go ahead with the Crazy Horse Memorial. It would be his life's work.

A Storyteller in Stone

Unlike his other works, the Crazy Horse sculpture would earn him no hefty commission; in fact, he used his own money to purchase the land on which he planned to create the monument. Returning to South Dakota in 1946, he and Standing Bear located a suitable site, a 600-foot monolith in the Black Hills that Ziolkowski named Thunderhead Mountain. Using marble left over from the Noah Webster statue, he fashioned a new model of the monument—an Indian astride a horse, this time with his left arm outstretched—that was 1/300th of the actual size of his intended memorial. The following year, on May 3, 1947. Ziolkowski returned to the site of Crazy Horse, having spent most of his savings to buy the property. Withe less than $200 to his name, he set up a tent for living space while he single-handedly started work on Thunderhead Mountain. At first he thought he would carve merely the top 100 feet of the mountain; soon, however, he revised that plan and set about using the entire monolith as the statue. The head itself, in this revised plan, would be nine stories high.

On June 3, 1948, the forty-year-old sculptor began breaking rock; the first blast, for which Ziolkowski drilled four holes, removed ten tons of rock from the mountain's face. From the beginning, Ziolkowski made several pledges to the Native Americans: the site would be run as a nonprofit educational and cultural project; he would take no salary for his labors; and funding would come from admission fees and donations rather than from government tax money. Reportedly, twice during the early years of the project, Ziolkowski turned down government sponsorship, declaring that the monument must remain independent of the bureaucrats and of Washington influence. To that end, the Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation was founded in 1948 and achieved nonprofit, tax-exempt status the following year. Ziolkowski quickly learned that his plan entailed more than creating a giant statue in a mountain; there were roads to be built, a log cabin to be erected for him to live in during the bitterly cold winters, and wells to be dug. He was aided in this Herculean labor by a few volunteers, one of whom, Ruth Ross, had worked with Ziolkowski before. The couple married in 1950 and worked together on the project for the rest of Ziolkowski's life; after his death in 1982, his widow carried on the project, with the aid of eight of her children.

From the beginning, the dangers inherent in the Crazy Horse project were evident; Ziolkowski had his first fall from the mountain during the first year. Other accidents followed and in subsequent years he sustained back injuries, broke bones, suffered from arthritis, and had several spinal surgeries to remove ruptured discs. Despite such medical setbacks, by 1950 enough work had been completed to start charging admission to curious visitors, and two years after that the cut was begun on Crazy Horse's ninety-foot profile. Slowly, through land exchange and purchases, Ziolkowski acquired all the land around the mountain as well as the mountain itself. He added a dairy farm and sawmill to the property. Heavy machinery was added to the single hydraulic drill he used for drilling explosive holes; an aerial cable and bulldozer helped to ease the workload. Throughout the 1950s the sculptor continued to chip away at the granite, revealing a nose and then a chin. By the 1960s, through Ziolkowski's careful work, the mountain side revealed the Indian's outstretched arm and his horse's mane.

Along with Ziolkowski's prodigious work, he and his wife reared a prodigiously sized family numbering ten children. So many of these children were in school at one time that Ziolkowski bought a one-room school house, transported it to the Crazy Horse site, and hired a certified teacher to educate his brood. Eight of these children have continued their parent's dream and continue to work on the project. As Monique, one of the five daughters told Hendrickson, "'To me it's not odd that we're carving a mountain.… I never thought it couldn't be done.… I thought everybody carved a mountain. If you grow up in a place, doing a thing, then it doesn't seem odd or strange.'"

From one man with a vision and pneumatic drill, the Crazy Horse Memorial project grew over the years to include over 200 workers that come to Thunderhead Mountain during the half of the year when work can be done. The project is funded through gate receipts from the million-plus visitors to the site annually. Engineering technology has improved, and by 2000 computer-assisted designs were helping to refine Ziolkowski's original plans; computers are also used in detonating cord for timed explosions. Blasts are far more exact that they were in the mid-twentieth century, with "pre-splitting"—akin to creating perforation for paper to tear evenly—created by drilling parallel rows of holes. Once segments of rock are blasted away, the surface is refined and polished using jet finishing torches powered by diesel and compressed air.

If you enjoy the works of Korczak Ziolkowski

you might want to check out the following books:

Bernhard Graf and Klaus Reichold, Buildings That Changed the World, 1999.

William Kotzwinkle, The Return of Crazy Horse (picture book), 1971.

John Taliaferro, Great White Fathers: The Story of the Obsessive Quest to Create Mount Rushmore, 2002.

By the time Ziolkowski died in 1982, after a quadruple bypass surgery, about 7.5 million tons of rock had been removed from Thunderhead Mountain, and most of the preliminary blocking out had been done on the horse Crazy Horse is riding. After his death, Ziolkowski was buried in a tomb he had constructed on the property, within earshot of the work he hoped would go on. To demonstrate that her husband's dream did not die with him, Ruth Ziolkowski and her children determined to complete the face of Crazy Horse in time for the project's fiftieth anniversary in 1998. That goal met, the focus of the family has returned to work on the horse. The Indian Museum of North America, located on the site, contains one of the most extensive collections of Plains Indian artifacts in the United States, while the nearby Native American Education and Cultural Center fulfils its mission of cultural education. Writing in the New York Times in 2002, Karl Cates noted that the "Crazy Horse Memorial has a forceful (and enormous) presence, with the striking visage of a warrior on horseback and the outline of an extended arm pointing across the vast lost lands of the Sioux."

Thought to be a white elephant at its inception, the Crazy Horse Memorial has become a major place of pilgrimage for tourist and archivist alike. For Ziolkowski, the monument was intended to be not only monumental, but also to show respect. As he noted in a 1952 note written to his children, as quoted by Hendrickson, "'The purpose of Crazy Horse is noble. There are many people who do not see its nobility at present, and even in our time, and mayhap in your children's time, the vision of Crazy Horse might be clouded to some people, but if you so wish to dedicate your life as to carry out my dreams, and I can now say your mother's dreams too, they will then also be your dreams.'" And in a poem written by Ziolkowski, to be carved in three-foot high letters next to the monument, the New England-born sculptor revealed part of his own inspiration for the project: "When the course of history has been told/Let these truths here carved be known:/Conscience dictates civilizations live/And duty ours to place before the world,/A chronicle which will long endure./ For like all things under us and beyond/Inevitably we must pass into oblivion."

Biographical and Critical Sources


Christian Science Monitor, September 4, 2002, Ron Bernthal, "Mapping the American Spirit," p. 13.

Cincinnati Post, April 4, 2003, "Crazy Horse Statue Found," p. B8.

Current Events, January 30, 1995, "Crazy Horse Rides Again."

Daily Telegraph (Surrey Hills, Australia), April 3, 2000, Monica Heary, "Chief Mountain Carver," p. 60.

Hispanic Times, December, 1993-January, 1994, Carl Shaw, "The Back Page," p. 54.

Los Angeles Times, May 12, 1987, James Marnell, "Family Faces a Mountainous Job," p. 2; September 18, 1989, Bob Specter, "It's a Mountain of Work and a Crazy Idea at That, but This Family Has Long Been Dedicated to the Job," p. 4; December 22, 1991, Kim Upton, "Crazy Horse Monument Is Filling a Tall Order," p. 4; October 10, 1996, Stephen Braun, "Artist's Family Inherits Monumental Task," p. 5.

New York Times, August 23, 2002, Karl Cates, "36 Hours Black Hills, SD," p. F6.

People, December 4, 1989, David Grogan, "The Ziolkowskis Are Honoring Chief Crazy Horse, by Blasting out a Mountain of Sculpture," pp. 105-107.

Seattle Times, June 7, 1998, Beth Gauper, "Crazy Horse Legend Takes Shape in Stone," p. K9.

Washington Post, December 12, 1996, Paul Hendrickson, "A Dream Carved in Stone," p. A1.

Wind Speaker, June, 2003, Jolene Davis, "In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, Work Continues," pp. S4-S5.

Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, WI), October 6, 2002, "Ceremony to Honor Crazy Horse Sculptor,"p.H4.


Crazy Horse Memorial Web site,http://www.crazyhorse.org/ (January 6, 2004).

State of South Dakota Web site,http://www.state.sd.us/ ((January 6, 2004), "About the Sculptor."*