By David Kittredge
Born in Boston in 1908, Ziolkowski became a foster child at the age of one and was mistreated and made to work very hard throughout his childhood. He worked at odd jobs to put himself through Rindge Technical School in Cambridge, while a teenager. After graduation he worked in the Boston shipyards as a pattern maker, creating machine parts out of wood to be used as patterns for the actual metal parts and was thus able, in his late teens, to begin to hone his sculpting abilities.
He then moved on to furniture building in his early 20s, mastering a mahogany grandfather clock which consisted of 55 pieces. At the age of 24 he used a coal chisel to carve a piece of marble into a likeness of juvenile Judge Frederick Pickering, a childhood role model who had introduced Ziolkowski to the fine arts while he was growing up in the rough Boston neighborhoods.
In 1939, Ziolkowski was hired by Gutzon Borglum as a sculptor’s assistant on the Mount Rushmore project. From the age of 13, when he first learned of Borglum, this was a childhood dream of Ziolkowski’s. Unfortunately there was some sort of communication glitch because Ziolkowski thought he had been hired as primary assistant to Borglum, but that position had already been filled by Lincoln Borglum, Gutzon’s son. A fistfight between Ziolkowski and Lincoln ensued, which had to be broken up, and Ziolkowski was fired.
But also in 1939, Korczak won first prize at the New York World’s Fair for his sculpture of Ignacy Paderewski, famed Polish pianist and composer. He was then approached by Chief Henry Standing Bear of the Oglala Lakota Sioux to create a monument of Crazy Horse, telling Ziolkowski that “My fellow chiefs and I would like the white man to know that the red man has great heroes too.” Korczak began to research and plan the project until the outbreak of World War II. He joined the United States Army and helped storm Omaha Beach in Normandy, where he was wounded.
In 1947 Ziolkowski moved to South Dakota with less than $150 to his name and lived in a tent. He searched for a suitable mountain to use for his sculpture. No, not a block of stone or a mere cliff of suitable material, but a mountain of stone was chosen for the Crazy Horse Memorial. The final plans for the sculpture were to be a monument 563 feet high and 641 feet long. In comparison heads of the presidents on the Mount Rushmore Monument are 60 feet in height.
The original configuration for the Mount Rushmore Monument was to include explorers Lewis and Clark, Chief Red Cloud, a contemporary of Crazy Horse, and Buffalo Bill Cody, a plan put forth by South Dakota historian Doan Robinson, who first came up with the idea of a monument. But Gutzon Borglum decided on the portraits of the four presidents instead because he thought it would have broader appeal. Borglum was contacted in 1931 by Luther Standing Bear, Henry’s older brother, who wanted Crazy Horse included in the Mount Rushmore Monument, but Borglum refused.
I feel that the longstanding animosity between the native Americans and the whites because of broken treaties, the location Rushmore Monument in the Black Hills, which is thought to be sacred land by the red man, and the refusal to include a depiction of a native American chief into the Rushmore Monument, helped to push Ziolkowski to the edge of madness in his decision to design a sculpture of such magnitude. He once stated in an interview in the 1970s that the project would take over 100 to complete. I also suspect that Korczak’s being fired from the Mount Rushmore project also had something to do with the immensity of his vision, although Ziolkowski later sculpted a bust of Borglum and when speaking of him while being interviewed, he did not seem to hold any grudges against his former employer.
Another obstacle that Ziolkowski had to overcome was that there were no photographic portraits of Crazy Horse because he would not allow any to be taken. So the sculptor had to rely on verbal descriptions handed down by tribal elders. As a result, I feel, the artist subconsciously added many of his own facial features into the model of the Crazy Horse Memorial, which becomes evident when comparing a painted portrait of Ziolkowski with the model of the tribal warrior, both of which are located at the museum at the base of the memorial.
The Crazy Horse Memorial depicts the Lakota warrior with his arm outstretched and this is said to symbolize a statement made by him that “my lands are where my dead lie buried.”
When Korczak Ziolkowski died in 1982, he was entombed at the base of the memorial in a vault carved out by his sons, with the epitaph “KORCZAK, Storyteller in Stone, May His Remains Be Left Unknown.”