Crazy Horse Memorial & Visionary Innovation

The classic American vacation might be that drive out west to see Mt. Rushmore. I’ve always yearned to see the famous mountain sculpture. This past week I got out to South Dakota, determined not to write or even think about creativity or innovation. I was there to enjoy the Black Hills, the Badlands, take in Mt. Rushmore, have a couple of strenuous hikes, and share it all with my lovely partner.

Then I saw the Crazy Horse Memorial — and I had to kiss goodbye the idea of a creativity and innovation thought-free vacation. I’ve never seen such an ambitious creative project.

It took me by surprise. I was only vaguely aware of the project and we stopped to see it only because it was on the way to Mt. Rushmore. When confronted with creativity on this grand a scale one can only catch your breath and try to still a heart pounding like an Indian tom-tom. Now that I’m back in Michiana I have to say a few words about this incredible example of creativity, vision, and yes, innovation. The innovation has to do with the usefulness of drawing needed attention to the neglected, ignored, and important cultural heritage of native Americans.

The short version of the story: in 1949 an Ogala Lakota Indian elder named Henry Standing Bear approached an up and coming sculptor, Korczak Ziolkowski, about doing a large scale work to show the world that Indians also had great heroes. Ziolkowski accepted the challenge. Why? I can only guess he was captured by the idea. So, at age 40, with a lone jackhammer, he climbed that mountain and started drilling, blasting and carving. Can you imagine? One man and a mountain, it’s really crazy when you think about it. It became his life’s work — he was still carving when he died at 73, and he’s buried in a vault he dug himself under the mountain. Ziolkowski’s family continues to head up the effort. Seven of his 10 children and his wife Ruth actively work on the project. Ziolkowki is my new creative hero. I can’t do him justice in this short post, but suffice to say, he was a visionary, a true artist, and a man with persistence, an independent spirit, humor, and true grit.

Visiting the sculpture-in-progress is breath taking. 63 years after Henry Standing Bear talked to Ziolkowski the symbolic face of Crazy Horse has emerged. An extended arm over a horses head is becoming visible. It is far from done, but it is already powerfully majestic. One can imagine how it will look someday by looking at the scale models.

Why would I single out this incomplete bit of artistic insanity as an example of creative vision?  Because all logic, all reasonableness, and every bit of analysis one could ever do would tell you Not to even start such a project. McKinsey would advise it as impossible — and they would be right! Ziolokowski could have stayed in Connecticut and had a posh life as a top east coast sculptor. There was no money for the project. No road into the site. No equipment to speak of, no water, no housing — nothing! And yet, a 40 year old man lives in a tent, builds a road, drills a well, constructs a stairwell of 800 steps up the side of a mountain and starts drilling with a jackhammer. Pure insanity…and yet, a creative vision on this grand a scale, and the faith to begin, are compelling things aren’t they? That spirit, that energy are still moving the project forward today. When it’s done it will be the largest sculpture in the world. All of the busts on Mt. Rushmore could fit neatly into Crazy Horse’s head.

When will it be done? Nobody knows, but I could predict it will take at least 15 more years. I hope to return to South Dakota many years from now and see it again. The Ziolokowski’s are not rushing to finish, they are taking the time to do it right.

Mt. Rushmore, to be honest, left me a bit cold. It’s an achievement to be sure, but, to me, it appears unfinished. When the visionary for that project, Gutzon Borglum died  his son Lincoln took over, cleaned up the site, and declared it done. When one sees the prototypes — which were nearly full figures, more than faces — it’s clear that expediency, the need to complete the project, took over. Professional innovators know this pattern well — push a product out the door, ready or not. Mt. Rushmore remains a glorious symbol of America, and one can only wonder what might have been…

The Crazy Horse Memorial remains a privately funded effort which gives them the freedom to do the job properly, send them some money if the spirit moves you. You will be contributing to a thing of great beauty.


Posted in Creativity and Self-Expression, Entrepreneurial, Innovation, Inspirational, Pop Culture