SIOUX FALLS — Donald Trump reminds sculptors Lee Leuning and Sherri Treeby of another outspoken, controversial, successful Republican: Bill Janklow.
That’s because of both men’s brash, shoot-from-the-lip style, their conservative beliefs and their willingness, even delight, at upsetting people who disagree with them.
Maybe that’s why Leuning and Treeby enjoyed working on statues of the two politicians.
They created the “Mount Trumpmore” statue that Gov. Kristi Noem presented to Trump on July 3, 2020, before he spoke at Mount Rushmore on his visit to the Black Hills of South Dakota. That fact has been kept quiet for more than a year, but Leuning and Treeby decided to discuss their work on the piece, as well as their joint career in art.
They also created the statue of Bill Janklow that is on the Trail of Governors in Pierre. It’s one of 10 governors they did, along with 11 presidential bronzes they made for the City of Presidents display in downtown Rapid City.
During an interview at their loft apartment near downtown Sioux Falls, they said Trump and Janklow, a Republican who served as South Dakota’s attorney general, was governor for four terms and also served in Congress, reminds them of Trump.
“A lot,” said Leuning, who was a game warden for the state of South Dakota as well as in Tennessee for nearly 30 years.
“No BS. Just say it straight,” Leuning said of the two leaders. “They’re both a PR man’s nightmare. They say what they mean.”
He said Trump has a sharp tongue that can lead to unfortunate comments. But Leuning, who also speaks bluntly, doesn’t let that bother him — he had too many conversations with the plain-spoken Janklow, who died in 2012, to let anyone get under his skin.
During their career, which was launched in the 1980s, they have created more than 250 statues and other pieces of art, including the presidential and governors’ statues, as well as nine sculptures in the South Dakota War Memorial at the Capitol in Pierre. They have had several pieces included in the Sioux Falls Sculpture Walk, and their work is on display across the state.
They recently landed a contract to create a sculpture of TV icon Johnny Carson for his hometown of Norfolk, Neb. A Norfolk committee member confirmed that, but said they are still raising money for the statue.
The “Mount Trumpmore” statue was created in a hurry in the late spring of 2020.
Noem’s staff contacted Dallerie Davis, a Rapid City art agent and Realtor who serves as a liaison for several sculptors in the state. Could a Mount Rushmore figurine with Trump attached be completed in about a month?
Davis immediately thought of Leuning and Treeby.
They agreed to create the modestly sized piece — 27 inches wide, 12 inches tall, 8 1/2 inches deep — in 34 days. It could be done, they said — at double their normal fee.
Two private donors — the artists don’t know who they are — agreed to cover the cost, reported at $1,100 in a report Trump submitted to a federal oversight agency as he left office. The checks to pay for the sculpture came from foundations.
“We’re working artists,” Leuning said. “We do art for money. We do art for art’s sake — when it’s good for our sake.”
They had to pay extra to get a Sioux Falls foundry to complete the miniature bronze pieces — both donors also received copies — but they were completed in time. Trump was added to the end of the row, next to Abraham Lincoln. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Theodore Roosevelt and all remaining in their usual locations.
Presented to Trump
Noem presented the statue to Trump at Mount Rushmore on July 3, 2020, when he delivered a speech at the memorial. Jets flew overhead and fireworks lit up the night sky.
The statue has never been publicly seen. Noem played coy about it before admitting she had presented the gift to the president.
Her spokesman, Ian Fury, provided a statement on the statue to the Pioneer.
“As Governor Noem has said in the past, her philosophy towards giving gifts is to always give the person something that they’ll appreciate, and that’s how she approached this sculpture,” Fury said. “No taxpayer dollars went into this gift — it was paid for by two donors.”
Although he is far from shy about self-promotion, Trump has never shared a photo of the statue. Its current location is unknown.
Leuning and Treeby were not invited to the presentation, but they said they were told Trump “loved” the piece.
While the former president has not shared a photo of it, on Aug. 9, 2020, he did tweet a photo of himself posed at Mount Rushmore.
The New York Times reported Trump had asked Noem about adding his face to the famous foursome, and CNN picked up on the story. Trump then denied their reports — sorta.
“This is Fake News by the failing @nytimes & bad ratings @CNN,” he said on his social media account, which was suspended in January. “Never suggested it although, based on all of the many things accomplished during the first 3 1/2 years, perhaps more than any other Presidency, sounds like a good idea to me.”
In April, the former president, in a podcast interview with Dan Bongino, said if he were a Democrat, his stone visage would have been added to Rushmore.
“I know, I know — yeah, I would have,” Trump said.
A fifth face can not be added to the monument as the rock on the mountain face is not stable enough, Mount Rushmore National Memorial Chief of Interpretation and Education Maureen McGee-Ballinger told this reporter shortly before Trump visited the Shrine of Democracy in 2020.
McGee-Ballinger said it’s not the first time there have been suggestions to add another stone bust to the memorial, but it’s impossible for two reasons.
“First, the rock that surrounds the sculpted faces is not suitable for additional carving. When Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor of Mount Rushmore died in 1941, his son Lincoln Borglum closed down the project and stated that no more carvable rock existed.”
Since 1989 the National Park Service has worked with RESPEC, a rock mechanics engineering firm, which agrees that there is no room to safely add a fifth face. In fact, it could lead to a catastrophic incident.
“Second, Mount Rushmore was sculpted by Gutzon Borglum to represent the first 150 years of the history of the United States — the birth, growth and preservation of our country,” she said. “He chose the four presidents (Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt, Lincoln) to represent the principles of our present form of government, not to represent the individuals themselves.”
Treeby and Leuning support Trump, and voted for him in both 2016 and 2020. He easily carried South Dakota both times.
Treeby said she would vote for him again in 2024, although Leuning is considering other options.
“I’d vote for Noem or the Florida guy,” he said, referring to Gov. Ron DeSantis.
But they said their art is separate from their political views. They will create a piece for a client without questioning the subject’s politics.
“We did it for Janklow; we will do it for you,” Leuning said.
The Trump piece is an example.
“There wasn’t a political word spoken,” Treeby said. “It brings attention to Mount Rushmore.”
He and Treeby despair over “cancel culture” and note when Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders visited Mount Rushmore, stories focused on its historical significance and artistic grandeur.
When Trump came, the angle was about white supremacy and the use of a mountain in land that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1980 had been wrongfully taken from the Lakota people. The high court ordered $102 million in compensation, which was immediately rejected by Native Americans.
They have continued to refuse the settlement, even as the figure has grown to nearly $2 billion. The Natives want their land back, something that would be impossible given the development of the area.
The mountain was called Six Grandfathers, or Tȟuŋkášila Šákpe, by the Lakota, as well as “Cougar Mountain, or Igmútȟaŋka Pahá.
White settlers called it Cougar Mountain, Sugarloaf Mountain, Slaughterhouse Mountain and Keystone Cliffs before it was named for Charles Rushmore, like Trump a wealthy New Yorker. He came to the Black Hills to check on mining interests and for annual hunting trips.
Mount Rushmore has had a Native American superintendent, Gerard Baker, a member of the Mandan-Hidatsa Tribe from North Dakota, who was in charge from 2004-10.
Baker also served as superintendent of Little Bighorn National Monument, known previously as Custer Battlefield. Baker made sure the Native side of the story and famed battle was told.
In 2008, he told this reporter he had “mixed feelings” about Rushmore, and said he had a favorite view of it: “The back,” Baker said. “That’s the way it was.”
He installed a Native village display, with three tipis, and said it was important to tell the entire story of the mountain, the memorial and the people.
“What a place to heal,” Baker said. “What better place to heal? We can bring people together. I want them to have more questions than answers when they leave. I’m trying to educate America.”
Trump, in his July 3, 2020, speech, had a different take. He sharply criticized “cancel culture” and defended Mount Rushmore as a packed crowd cheered “USA, USA, USA.”
“This movement is openly attacking the legacies of every person on Mount Rushmore,” Trump said. “They defile the memory of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Roosevelt. Today, we will set history and history’s record straight. Before these figures were immortalized in stone, they were American giants in full flesh and blood, gallant men whose intrepid deeds unleashed the greatest leap of human advancement the world has ever known.”
In fact, Washington and Jefferson were both slaveholders. Lincoln, known as the “Great Emancipator,” made some comments that cause supporters to cringe today, and he is deeply unpopular among many Native Americans for allowing the execution of 39 Indians after the 1862 Dakota War in western Minnesota.
Roosevelt, who spent time in both North and South Dakota in the late 19th century, also made comments about “inferior” races.
But to Leuning and Treeby, such historical revisionism misses the point. They are somewhat outcasts in the art world, they admit. Their politically conservative views often clash with more liberal colleagues.
Leuning said he is as much a businessman as an artist. He dismisses art professors who fail to teach their students how to be successful in selling and marketing their work.
To these two artists, Mount Rushmore is a singular achievement.
“It’s a fabulous job,” Leuning said. “It’s an amazing job. There’s not one iota of racism in it.”
Borglum, however, had ties to the Ku Klux Klan. He worked on Stone Mountain in Georgia, a massive tribute to Confederate leaders Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis, before coming to South Dakota. He departed Georgia after a dispute, and his work was blasted off the mountain.
Borglum’s mountain-carving in the Black Hills, however, has endured. Leuning and Treeby said it should do so for eons.
They point to the massive impact it has had on South Dakota, where tourism is second only to agriculture in the state’s economy. Mount Rushmore, famous across the globe, has been a driving force for decades.
A talkative, friendly man with a rugged, outdoor image, he said art was always important to him. Leuning, 69, met Treeby, 70, an Ohio native who came to South Dakota four decades ago, at a sculpting class at Northern State University. They created pieces in the class — and sold them.
All too often, art students are taught how to create but not how to survive as an artist, they said. They were determined to succeed as both artists and business owners, and have done so.
They formed a partnership, Bad River Artworks, named for a nearby river.
They eventually became life partners as well, and have a home and studio in Aberdeen and a loft apartment overlooking Falls Park near downtown Sioux Falls.
“I think we were always meant to do this,” Treeby said.
Creating art while working with families and organizations can be challenging. Treeby and Leuning share ideas and develop a plan, but they have found some opposition.
For Gov. M. Q. Sharpe, who was in office from 1943-47, they depicted him in fishing gear, holding a Northern Pike. During his two terms as governor, Sharpe championed the Missouri River dams that greatly enhanced fishing and outdoor recreation.
A family member was opposed to that idea, saying Sharpe was not an angler. But, Treeby said, the concept is to show someone in an active and
interesting pose, not just another stagnant statue of a lawyer in a suit.
Once the piece was completed, the family loved it. It now stands near Lake Sharpe in Pierre.
Treeby and Leuning said their work has improved as they have learned more about the art form. They utilize the “lost wax process” that involves steel framing tubes, steel rods, clay, wax, and latex to create a mold.
Eventually, molten bronze is poured, the wax is melted off and the final pieces are welded together. The end result is a remarkable image of the person, produced in solid metal that will withstand weather and other challenges.
They are now offering copies of the “Mount Trumpmore” figurine for sale. They will reproduce it at the same size Trump received, or make it in the size requested. The cost? $10,000.
Leuning asks people to call or contact them through their website to order their own version of Mount Trumpmore.
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