Crazy Horse sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski and Lakota Chief Henry Standing Bear dedicated their Crazy Horse Memorial dream on June 3, 1948.
Without Korczak there would be no Crazy Horse Memorial. Its history revolves around his own extraordinary story, which is reflected in his log studio-home, workshop and sculptural galleries at Crazy Horse. His life and work are an inspiration to many, especially to young people.
Although he became most famous as a mountain carver, he was a noted studio sculptor and member of the National Sculpture Society before he came west. Crazy Horse represents only the second half of his life. Korczak said it was the collective experience of the difficult first half of his life that prepared him for Crazy Horse. It enabled him to prevail over the decades of financial hardship and racial prejudice he encountered trying to create an American Indian memorial in the Black Hills.
Born in Boston of Polish descent, Korczak was orphaned at age one. He grew up in a series of foster homes. As a boy he was badly mistreated, but he learned to work very hard. He also gained heavy construction and other skills helping his foster father.
On his own at 16, Korczak took odd jobs to put himself through Rindge Technical School in Cambridge, MA, after which he became an apprentice patternmaker in the shipyards on the rough Boston waterfront.
He experimented with woodworking, making beautiful furniture. At age 18, he handcrafted a grandfather’s clock from 55 pieces of Santa Domingo mahogany. Although he never took a lesson in art or sculpture, he studied the masters and began creating plaster and clay studies. In 1932 he used a coal chisel to carve his first portrait, a marble tribute to Judge Frederick Pickering Cabot, the famous Boston juvenile judge who had befriended and encouraged the gifted boy and introduced him to the world of fine arts.
Moving to West Hartford, Conn., Korczak launched a successful studio career doing commissioned sculpture throughout New England, Boston and New York. His Carrara marble portrait, “PADEREWSKI, Study of an Immortal,” won first prize by popular vote at the 1939 New York World’s Fair.
A childhood dream came true when he was asked to assist Gutzon Borglum at Mount Rushmore during the summer of 1939. Media reports about Korczak’s World’s Fair prize and work at Rushmore prompted hereditary Lakota Chief Henry Standing Bear to start writing to the sculptor, appealing to him to create a memorial to American Indians. The two eventually met and even toured potential carving sites.
Back in Connecticut, Korczak spent two years carving his 13 1/2-foot Noah Webster Statue as a gift to West Hartford. The work drew national attention but embroiled the community and the sculptor in controversy, foreshadowing what was to come at Crazy Horse. At age 34, he volunteered for service in World War II. He landed on Omaha Beach and, later, was wounded.
At war’s end he was invited to make government war memorials in Europe. But he had decided to accept the invitation of Chief Standing Bear and other project supporters and to dedicate the rest of his life to Crazy Horse Memorial.
Korczak arrived in the Black Hills on May 3, 1947. He worked on the project until his death on October 20, 1982, at age 74. During his nearly 36 years of working on the mountain, he refused to take any salary at Crazy Horse Memorial.
He is buried in the tomb that he and his sons blasted from a rock outcropping near where the permanent Indian museum will rise at the foot of the mountain carving. For the tomb door he wrote his own epitaph and cut it from three-quarter-inch steel plate. It reads:
KORCZAK Storyteller in Stone
May His Remains Be Left Unknown