Growing up the middle of five children with large extended families in all branches of my family tree, I’ve learned to take it in stride when I am mistaken for one of my siblings or cousins or parents or what have you, or when it takes family members or friends three or four attempts at names before settling on mine. We all laugh because we all do it.
It’s probably because we were all born with the trait of being stubborn enough to pursue our own interests and be our own person that it never bothered us too terribly much to be compared or held to another’s standard; in fact, my brothers and sisters and I good-naturedly tease each other about sibling rivalry more as a form of entertainment.
More than anything, their actions and choices have always inspired me to want to be a better person, so I would describe my siblings as something much closer to friends and mentors than competitors. Don’t get me wrong – we’ve certainly had our screaming matches and moments of discord – but at the end of the day, my family has always been the people who stick around when anyone else in their right mind would leave. My siblings are among the people who’ve known me the longest and love me throughout the good and bad times, and even though they say you can’t pick your family, I’d choose mine every time. So to be mistaken for or recognized because of one of them – I take it as a compliment. We’ve all helped to shape one another through our lives and growing up, so without the others, we would not be the people we are today.
The same is true for the Borglum brothers. I’m sure you’ve probably heard the name Gutzon Borglum; his is the most-recognized work of art in the state. That’s right: Mount Rushmore, the “Shrine to Democracy” completed in 1941, is the most recognized sculpture in the state, and arguably, as a large-scale work, nationally and internationally, as well.
A name that you may not recognize as quickly is Solon Borglum, Gutzon’s younger brother. He had plenty of accolades and quite an interesting life story of his own, but in South Dakota, it’s a bit more understandable that his name gets overshadowed by Mount Rushmore (which Solon didn’t live to see the beginnings of) and the distinction it brought to his brother.
The brothers were sons to Jens Borglum and Christina Mikkelsen. Jens first married Ida Mikkelsen; the couple converted to Mormonism and moved to Salt Lake City in 1864, and Ida’s family followed them, converting as well. At the time, plural marriage was legal and encouraged, so Jens took a second wife, Ida’s younger sister Christina, in 1865. After three years, Jens and Christina divorced, the family left the Mormon church, and Jens, Ida, their children, and Christina’s two sons, Gutzon and Solon, moved to St. Louis, where Jens earned a medical degree. He then moved the family to Nebraska, where he became a county doctor.
As teenagers, the brothers knew exactly what they wanted to do, and although they differed initially in their desires, they would both earn international reputations as artists. Gutzon left Nebraska for art school in Los Angeles, went to Europe and earned his fame, and then, as we know, later carved four presidential faces onto Mount Rushmore.
Solon, who showed talent for art at a young age, wanted to be a rancher. He embraced the cowboy lifestyle as a teenager and worked hard, retaining art as his hobby. However, after blizzards in 1886-87 effectively wiped out the ranching industry, resulting in huge losses of cattle for area ranchers, he saw some of the fragility of things outside of one’s control in the lifestyle. Also, Gutzon visited in 1890. He saw Solon’s “hobby” paintings and encouraged him to follow a different career path. Solon started studying art in Omaha, all the while painting on his father’s 6,000-acre ranch, so on Gutzon’s next visit in 1893, he had an entire exhibit prepared for Gutzon’s perusal. In Arthur R. Huseboe’s “An Illustrated History of the Arts in South Dakota,” he describes that Gutzon was so impressed that he immediately suggested the brothers open a studio together in California. Solon agreed, and they set up shop in Sierra Madre.
Their partnership was short-lived, and Solon enrolled in the Cincinnati Art Academy in November of 1895. He specialized in sculpture, and he had 17 pieces in the school’s Annual Exhibition by the end of his second year.
He set his sights on Paris, the apex for an artist’s career in the 19th century, and though he was successful as an artist, the “starving artist” notion remained true – however, he was able to afford passage by working aboard a cattle boat bound for Europe. But we’ll have to get to that part of the story next week. Stay tuned!