Accessibility links

Stone Carvers Learn in the Shadow of a Sculpted Mountain

  • Jim Kent

Four huge faces carved by Gutzon Borglum into a South Dakota mountain in the 1920s and 30s are serving as an inspiration this summer for stone carvers working on a much smaller scale. As she gently taps a hammer along the surface of her sculpture, 62-year-old artist Priscilla Schmidt explains why she's being so careful. "At this point I don't want to knock a big chunk out, like I did yesterday, at the end of the day and have to file it down. So, I'm just having to take it really slow and careful; and use a lot of these rasps . . . at least to smooth it, if not help form it."

Ms. Schmidt has worked in many media, but never stone. So, when she read in the local paper that Mount Rushmore National Monument was offering classes in stone carving, she jumped at the opportunity. "I worked here at Mount Rushmore when I was in college one summer," she says, adding that she's loved the place since then. "It is inspiring. The site is inspiring. The beauty is just wonderful... it's awesome. So, that's part of the mystique of being here and doing this."

The idea for the stone-carving class originated with sculptor DJ Garrity, who works for the National Park Service at Mount Rushmore. "What we're trying to do," he explains, "is create faces emerging from the stone. Whatever they see in that stone, we try to encourage that, and just give them some guidance... some direction to bring out their vision."

Classes are open to all ages and all levels of experience. After selecting a chunk of limestone - softer than the granite above them - the students are given a hammer, chisel and rasp. Then it's five days of hard work, patience, and letting your imagination the same time learning to respect the stone. As DJ Garrity points out, what the artist has in mind and what the stone gives back may be two completely different images. He points to the face emerging from Ms. Schmidt's sculpture as an example. "She went from it being a man - a very masculine face - to a woman's face, back to a man's face. Now she's narrowing it down again. So, all these developments, all these stages of the stone carving are new to her, so she's getting to feel what it really is to be able to work in this fashion, where you can't put it back if you knock a nose off. And our record here for one afternoon is 6 noses!"

But even professionals encounter problems that force them to change their original design. DJ Garrity notes that sculptor Gutzon Borglum planned to have Thomas Jefferson to the left of George Washington, not in his present location on Washington's right. However, after working on Jefferson's face for a year, he encountered a vein of softer stone and a big vertical crack. "So he blew it off the mountain, brought it back around to where we see Thomas Jefferson today." Mr. Garrity says his students can relate his dilemma to their efforts. "They can look up and say, 'You know, Gutzon Borglum... I can really understand what he's going through up there, in a way. It was a colossal work up there, but still, he had these same frustrations and these same issues... on a colossal scale.' The stone is gonna dictate what we're gonna do up here. Not what I want it to do, but rather what the stone's going to allow me to do."

Not everyone in class is daunted by the great stone faces above them. Eight year-old London Kahler is focused on carving a horse. "First I kind of just chipped away the rock, til I get some kind of shape, and then as three days went by, it's really making progress," she says, smoothing its side with her rasp. She picks up her hammer and chisel again. " I think we're gonna gloss it or something before we take it home. I think it'll be a perfect thing for my room."

Whether his students are 6 or 60, DJ Garrity says they all have fun. "It's actually a lot of fun. And I feel lucky to be able to do it. And it's been very rewarding for us... for me, as an individual, to work with these students of different age brackets and to see their successes and, at times, their setbacks. But their willingness to continue, and the focus that they've brought to it." It was that same dedication and focus that Gutzon Borglum brought to this mountain more than half a century ago.

DJ Garrity hopes that his stone-carving classes will draw even more students next year, to sit in the shadow of the great granite monument and be inspired.