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Image of Mount Rushmore.

How Art Shapes Our Lives: Mount Rushmore National Memorial

By Sal Maccarone

Image of a Mount Rushmore postcard.

Mount Rushmore

Due to both the availability, and permanence of the material, carving objects from natural stone is an ancient activity. Going all the way back to Paleolithic times, man has always found ways to fashion stone. After all, we use the term “Stone age” to reference some of our earliest ancestors. Back then most of the carving was done with flint, and obsidian tools, but the skill did eventually evolve into art. Historians, and archaeologists now use a study of this type of evolution to rate a given culture’s advancement as a society.

While the earliest carvers used only abrasive techniques to work their stone, for most of recorded history sculptors have been using some form of hammer and chisel combination. Even modern tools like the “jack hammer” are a variation of this method. As each civilization got its grasp on their particular stone carving technique, they would became more ambitious. In some cases it seems like the sky must have been the limit in terms of what they set out to accomplish.

Image of Kailasa Temple.

Kailasa Temple

Consider the 8th century builders of the Kailash Temple in India who carved many monasteries, and temples side by side into a basalt cliff. This temple is unique because of the way that it was excavated. Carvers started at the top and excavated downward through an estimated quarter-of-a-million tons of solid rock. It took hundreds of years to complete this monolithic structure made out from a single massive rock. Archeologists have concluded from the chisel marks in the walls that the builder’s tools, and techniques became more advanced through the course of carving this amazing temple.

Image of workers working on Mount Rushmore.

Borglum and workers

There are a number of monolithic sculptures scattered around the world, but one of the most astonishing is right here in the United States. Astonishing because the work was orchestrated by just two men, Gutzon Borglum (1867-1941), and his son Lincoln Borglum (1912-1986). Mount Rushmore National Memorial features the likenesses of four former United States presidents. From left to right they include: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln. Carved into a solid granite mountain near Keystone, South Dakota, the enormous heads are sixty feet, (or six stories), high. These particular presidents were chosen by Borglum as a means of representing the first one hundred and fifty years of American history.

Image of Mount Rushmore in progress.

Work in progress on Mount Rushmore

The idea to carve the figures of famous people in a South Dakota Mountain was first conceived by a historian named Jonah Robinson (1856-1946). He believed that a sculptural monument like this would promote much needed tourism in the Black Hills area. The original site, a place called the Needles, was rejected by the sculptor because of the granite was fractured. Borglum then pushed for the larger “Mount Rushmore” site in an effort to put national focus on the project. After some very long negotiations involving Congress and President Calvin Coolidge the funding was secured. The project began on October 4, 1927 and ended on October 31, 1941.

Some interesting facts about the monument include:

The image of Thomas Jefferson was started in an area to the right of George Washington until the rock was deemed to be unstable. The in-progress figure of Jefferson was dynamited and a new figure was sculpted to Washington’s right.

The original concept called for the presidents to be depicted from head to waist, but a lack of funding forced an end to that proposition. The total project ended up costing $989,999.32; just shy of one million dollars.

The monument has been under the control of the National Park Service since 1933′ and received more than two million visitors each year prior to the current pandemic. A real testament to Jonah Robinson’s vision of increasing tourism in South Dakota! (http://www.nps.gov/moru/)

Here is a link to some historic footage of Gutzon Borglum, and his son Lincoln working on the mountain. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qx4wu8gzTaM

Sal Maccarone


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