Big Country, Big Art

Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota.

The buttes and plains of North Dakota coming out of Theodore Roosevelt National Park led us down into the Black Hills of South Dakota yesterday – which by the way only look black because the pine trees thickly blanketing them are such a dark green.

It’s a big country even in today’s world in which technology removes borders and shrinks the globe. I can only imagine how big it must of seemed in the Roaring ‘20s when our future as a nation seemed only as limited as our ability to dream. America has always dreamed big. Gutzon Borglum certainly did when he conceptualized Mt. Rushmore.

Borglum was busy carving a Confederate memorial on Stone Mountain in Georgia when he was called in on a memorial that was to become Mt. Rushmore. Born in Idaho, Borglum studied art in Paris and made his name celebrating all things American. If he had a motto, it would have been: Big country—big art.

The artist at work.

As amazing as Borglum’s vision and the implementation of his vision is in the Mt. Rushmore story, what captivated me most me during my visit to the monument today was the 400 men and women who worked on the monument to bring it to life. Their names are carved in a stone slab as you enter the memorial. They didn’t study in Paris. Many of them probably never even left South Dakota. They thought of themselves as workers, not artists. But the Mt. Rushmore National Memorial — America, in fact – is here today because of people like them.

Red Anderson was a driller and assistant carver on the massive project. He said, “More and more we sensed that we were creating a truly great thing, and after a while all of us old hands became truly dedicated to it and determined to stick to it.” And they did – despite low pay and very long hours. They stuck to it because it became THEIR creation as much as it was Borglum’s.  There’s a fundamental management lesson in there for Corporate America.  That being, people are most motivated when they feel a sense of ownership in the work…not just drones drilling a hole in the side of a mountain.

What an astounding creation it is! Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Roosevelt look out from the stone with eyes that peer into infinity with a life-like depth that leaves you waiting for them to blink. It is a big statement…and big art…for a big country – as relevant now as then.

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