Gutzon Borglum

Gutzon Borglum

(1867 – 1941)

DJ Name: Gutsy Gutzon

Happy belated President’s day to all who celebrate and to all who enjoyed a three-day weekend (thanks to the Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1971 — yes, a real a$$ act that gives you those nice lonnnnnng weekends). In honor of all the Presidents who have come and gone, sat their tushies in the Oval Office, and led this U S of A in the highest of offices, we’re…not going to write about one. Ha!

We are, however, coming to you with a hella controversial man who carved four presidents’ faces into the side of a mountain that sits on sacred land of the Lakota and who was involved with the Ku Klux Klan. Sculptor Gutzon Borglum created the design for, you guessed it, Mount Rushmore in the mid-1920s shortly after he was fired by the KKK due to creative differences when members of the Klan and the United Daughters of the Confederacy did not approve of his slow sculpting of Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis and Stonewall Jackson into the side of Stone Mountain, located just outside of Atlanta. So Gutzon smashed the model and left Georgia for the Black Hills. Despite his ties to white supremacy, Gutzon carved his way into history in ways that make us forget that problematic background. 

Which leads us to a digression *ahem*

We the people of Historic Shuffle have been writing by the motto: “What if the heroes and sheroes of history had Spotify?” A riveting question, we know! But what we didn’t know was that one day we’d want to tell the tale(s) of people who may have done something cool, noteworthy, and preserved today (like sculpt some presidents’ faces into the side of a mountain which is now maintained by the Natty Park Service) but who may also be dripping with conflict in their personal lives.

So we’re rebranding and will now answer the question: “Reading about historical figures from our past, we couldn’t help but wonder: what would they listen to if they had Spotify?” We’ll leave the heroes/sheroes to Marvel and bring you the histories and obviously very accurate modern day musical musings of people from our past we know and don’t know but all who made moves. 

Now, back to your regularly scheduled Thursday programming…

When Gutzon wasn’t chiseling at the chinny chin chin of Thomas Jefferson, he hit play on these songs to get his sculpting juices grooving in his workshop:

So, why would Gutzon listen to these songs today, you ask? Here are a few reasons (that he told us to share): 

  • Ever the sculptor with an ego bigger than George Washington’s nose on Mount Rushmore, Gutzon gets down to “Me Too” belting out, “If I was you, I’d wanna be me too.”
  • Most certainly would blast Bruce Springsteen’s “Badlands” as he rolled up to South Dakota which leads us to…
  • Gutzon “Runnin’ Down a Dream” to sculpt massive Mount Rushmore 
  • And by the end of his life, Borglum was an “Industry Baby” with sculptures anywhere from mountainsides, pedestals in DC, and outside UVA’s library. 

John Gutzon de la Mothe Borglum was born on March 25, 1867 in St. Charles of the Idaho Territory (didn’t have that statehood life yet). His father, Jens Møller Haugaard Børglum, immigrated from the Denmark village of Børglum and he had not one, but TWO wives who also happened to be sisters. Cute! They were actually the first fam featured on TLC’s “Sister Wives,” it’s a fact. He was a Mormon man with an American dream in one hand and a free book written by Jesus a long, long time ago in the other!! (Total guess here, but if Jens was around today, he’d love The Book of Mormon musical). Anyways, one of the two sisterwives was Gutzon’s mama. But after a few years, Jens said “bye” to his heavenly father and left Mormonism and divorced Gutzon’s mom but remained married to her sister, leaving Gutzon with a stepmother who is also his aunt. Awkward! The family moved to Nebraska, where interestingly enough polygamy was illegal. 

Much of Gutzon’s childhood was spent living in a little house on the prairie but the family ventured out to California for a stint. His father and second wife-turned-only-wifey-for-lifey didn’t like it so they left, but Gutzon made a gutsy move and stayed behind. While in California, he studied how to influence. Ok, maybe not. He became a lithographer’s apprentice – aka helping to reproduce works of art onto stone or metal plates – but quit after six months due to his skimpy salary. Gutzon decided he would try to make it as a famous artist. He began to paint frescos, landscapes and portraits for the real housewives of Los Angeles of the 19th century. 

He also fell in love with an artist twice his age named Lisa Putnam, who helped mentor him. Sure enough ol’ Gutzon gained recognition for the portrait he painted of Union General John C. Frémont, who also spearheaded many expeditions to survey the western United States for expansion. ‘Twas the Oregon Trail era after all. After Frémont’s passing, his widow connected Gutzon with Theodore Roosevelt and other prominent figures. Gutzon’s portrait of Frémont was just the start to his nationalistic art. Gutzon and Lisa left California and moved to Paris to study how to bake the perfectly flaky cwoissant — ok, they actually studied art. 

While there, Gutzon met a sculptor named Auguste Rodin (the man who created “The Thinker” you know the one). It was here that he became #influenced by larger-than-life sculptures created by Parisians, Egyptians and Greeks. And thus ol’ Gutzon decided to ditch the paint brush for the chisel and returned home to the US of A at the turn of the century as a single man in New York City ready to carve some sh*t. Oh, also, don’t fret: he shortly thereafter married a lady he met on the ship ride home. Gutsy Gutzon said she was a dream boat (maybe) and the rest was history. 

Gutzon’s transition to sculpting was no bust. He got to work right away by chiseling Abraham Lincoln out of a large block of marble. It was displayed in the White House during Teddy Roosevelt’s presidency and today sits in the U.S. Capitol’s Crypt. Though the Crypt was once used for bicycle parking, today it’s home to a copy of the Magna Carta, 12 other noteworthy statues and a package of Cosmic Brownies in case someone in the future doesn’t believe they once existed. Gutzon was an outspoken artist with an egotistical personality whose bust of Lincoln and pompous interviews caught the attention of the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1915. 

The Daughters wanted to bring a “Shrine to the South” that praised the legacies of Confederate leaders like Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis on Stone Mountain, located about 16 miles east of Atlanta and not the winery outside of Charlottesville, Virginia. Ever the opportunist, Borglum (dun dun dun) accepted the gig which in an even more unfortunate turn of events received its funding from the Ku Klux Klan and ticket sales from a theater nearby from screenings of the newly released Confed classic, “Birth of a Nation.” Borglum mocked up a colossal creation that had these Confederates standing at 50 feet (too) tall.

His artist’s vision was to have Lee, Davis and Jackson on horseback riding around the mountain, and then was later swayed by a Miss Helen Plane, who persuaded him to add in a KKK altar into the designs after she wrote to him: “I feel it is due to the KKK that saved us from Negro domination and carpetbag rule, that it be immortalized on Stone Mountain.” Very pleasant wording, Helen. After a delay due to World War I, Gutzon and his team got down to business and started chiseling away. But ever the perfectionist and autocratic leader of his chiseling chums, Gutzon’s ties with the KKK began to fray. The organization leaders said Gutzon, “chop chop with the chiseling,” but Gutzon was like “nah, man, an artist has gotta take his time carefully crafting Stonewall Jackson’s perfectly angular nose.” The creative dispute came to a head in March 1925 when Gutzon said “I can’t beLEEve this” and smashed his clay and plaster models. 

He high-tailed it outta Georgia, heading for them thar hills of South Dakota. Alas, none of his Stone Mountain work remains because his former funders smashed it to smithereens when they brought in his replacement. But ‘twas not the worst ending for ol’ Gutzon because he took the knowledge he acquired from this failed masterpiece and took it to Mount Rushmore, which would also become an incomplete masterpiece.

Enter: Doane Robinson, South Dakota history enthusiast and bushy mustache grower. Doane had a vision that everyone else in the US of A could love… the Mount Rushmore State (yes that’s actually its real nickname)… if only they would come for a visit. So he conceived of an idea of some dope carvings that no man or woman of sound mind could pass up and thus the concept of Mount Rushmore was born to bring in more tourists. He approached the South Dakota state legislature with his thick three-ring binder, complete with color-coordinated tabs, to ask the leaders about funding such a project. In his OG vision, Gutzon included the Sioux Nation chief as well as other famous South Dakotans (such as, uh, Laura Ingalls Wilder and some others maybe). 

But the South Dakota bigwigs said “no funding for you, come back one year.” Or something like that. But they did say he could scout out a location for this lil’ passion project, and he set off to find the perfect spot. But Gutzon, who was in cahoots with Doane at this point on the project, said “no can do” because it was part of Lakota Nation and that there was deeply controversial. Also, the rock over there sucked. 10/10 rock experts agree that there was better, more sturdy rock to be found in S.D. and thus they moved over to Mount Rushmore where the rock was 10/10 even though it still sat on sacred Lakota land. However lucky for Doane, he found himself a guardian angel in history’s most silent president, Calvin Coolidge. Those two famous words he spoke at that dinner one time? “Carve shit.” 

And the rest was history, as Gutzon gussied himself up and got to work for the second time on a daunting sculpting project that he would work on from 1927 until 1941, when he died. The OG design Gutzon planned was to give the Presidents their torsos and GW an ascot. He was also in cahoots with the sculpting team to add a stairway that led from the base of the mountain into what would have been a Hall of Records behind the Presidents’ heads. In 1998, the National Park Service did add this mysterious Hall of Records, but how does one access it if you’re not a treasure hunting Nicholas Cage? 

They say our dreams sustain us, but even this sculpting dream couldn’t sustain Gutzon’s heart from giving out. The rest of Gutzon’s creations aren’t really all that noteworthy in comparison to Mount Rushmore, but we do think it’s worth mentioning that one of his more unique pieces, titled “The Aviator,” is located in none other than Charlottesville, Virginia, on the University of Virginia’s grounds. Yes, we properly called it “grounds” because we are true Virginians. “The Aviator” commemorates James Rogers McConnell, who was killed in World War I while flying for the Lafayette Escadrille, a French Air Force unit. From The U.S. Capitol Crypt to the home of the Hoos, Gutzon Borglum made his chiseling mark on history.

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