Those who knew him speak of a charisma and a work ethic that set him apart from other men. They describe him as a thinker and a doer, a family man and a rugged individualist, an artist and a visionary — a man who read poetry, but also pounded steel and shaped rock. He was self-taught, self-reliant, and at the age of 40 made a decision that would forever link his life, work, and legacy to the first inhabitants of North America – an indigenous people who had systematically been dispossessed of the land and relegated to the periphery of society.
Born in Boston, Massachusetts, on September 6th, 1908, Korczak Ziolkowski was an American of Polish descent who was orphaned at the age of one when his parents, Joseph and Anne, died in a tragic accident. He spent the remainder of his childhood years in the guardianship of an Irish prize fighter and his wife. The couple was abusive and demanded constant physical labor out of the boy. Consequently, Korczak’s childhood was not ideal. He once recollected it as “a terrible life” (Swastek, “The Making of a Sculptor”).
At the age of 16, determined to make his own way in the world and a better life for himself, Korczak left home and did not look back. Working at numerous odd jobs in order to support himself and finance his own education, Korczak managed to graduate from Rindge Technical School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1927; however, it was in the shipyards of the Bethleham Steele Corporation where his professional education really began. He was first exposed to the art of carving during these years. Interestingly, one of his initial duties in the shipyard was to repair a docked ship’s giant figurehead of an Aztec Chieftain. This seemingly insignificant fact at the time now serves to foreshadow the monumental project that Korczak would eventually come to take on.
By the time he was 18, Korczak was carving furniture, grandfather clocks, and portraits in wood. Around this same time, he was befriended by a well-known Boston Juvenile Judge by the name of Frederick Pickering Cabot who continuously encouraged the young man and introduced him to numerous influential people. One of these influential people was Jan Kirchmayer, a professional woodcarver who further inspired Korczak and through his mentorship profoundly affected the trajectory of Korczak’s life. As a result of his close relationship with Kirchmayer, as well as an ever-expanding interest in carving, and a refusal to give up on his dreams of one day becoming a world-class sculptor, Korczak eventually transformed himself into an artist of note – working often in wood and marble. Subsequently, 1939 would prove to be a pivotal year for the up-and-coming sculptor.
In 1939, Korczak worked for a short time as Gutzon Borglum’s assistant on Mount Rushmore, won first prize at the New York World’s Fair for his sculpture of Polish pianist and statesman Ignacy Paderewski, and received a letter from a man he had never met – a Lakota elder and Chief who asked him to consider carving a memorial to Oglala Lakota leader Crazy Horse. Over the next six years, many letters would pass between the sculptor and the Lakota elder and Chief. All the while, Korczak continued to sculpt – producing an awe-inspiring, gigantic, marble sculpture of the famous lexicographer Noah Webster, which today stands on the town hall lawn in West Hartford, Connecticut. In addition, during this same time, Korczak, 34 and always a patriot, volunteered for the United States Army. Soon after volunteering, he landed on Omaha Beach and found himself wounded not once, but twice in battle. Ultimately, after six years of correspondence, serious sustained consideration of the project proposed by the Lakota Chief, and experiencing the worst side of humanity manifested in the form of a bloody world war, Korczak made the decision to accept the invitation from Chief Henry Standing Bear and his fellow leaders. Korczak would come to the Black Hills – the sacred Paha Sapa of the Lakota people – in order to carve a memorial to Oglala Lakota leader Crazy Horse and the Native American people of North America . . .
Based in part on information found in Joseph Swastek’s “The Making of a Sculptor,” this article is the third installment of a periodic chronology that will be published by the Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation on the history of the Memorial.
–Dr. Jason Murray for the Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation