Make it personal.

Korczak Ziokowski


Korczak in the 1940s

One of the heroes I hold up for us to examine in this seminar is Korczak Ziolkowski, the man responsible for the design of the Crazy Horse Monument in the Black Hills of South Dakota. An orphan of Polish immigrant parents, raised in orphanages in around Boston in the early 20th century, he became a sculptor after being trained as a furniture maker in his 20s. He assisted the lead designer of Mt. Rushmore, and rose to some acclaim as a sculptor in the 30s. Approached by Lakota elders in the 40s to build a monument to their slain hero, he first volunteered for service in the US army, was wounded on Omaha Beach in WW2, returned to the states and moved to the Black Hills of South Dakota to begin work on what is to this day the largest sculpture in the world: a monument carved out of a mountain to honor Crazy Horse, the Lakota chief, warrior and martyr who points to the Lakota burial ground in Ziolkowski’s design. Although a patriot and a veteran, he refused to accept money from any US government source (many of whom offered) even though he, his team (mostly his family) and the native people supporting him were cash poor. He held on to his integrity, regarding any income from the government as blood money, and an affront to the people he was serving. The first blast to the mountain was made June 3rd 1948. They are working on it to this day. Korczak died at the monument in 1982, and his family continues to guide this work.

They just received a $5 million gift from a wealthy individual. You can donate to their cause here.

Dedication of the monument in 1948, Korczak holding hat

What does it take to be this committed to a creative project? You might say, insanity. And I will agree with you up to a point. “Insane”, or “crazy” is what they call visionaries, prophets, eccentrics and many artists. And by “they” I mean the world of conventional thinkers who have dedicated their lives to a consensus-based version of reality. They figure out what is reasonable, probable, likely, conventionally understood, data-driven, normal and accepted by the rest of “them” as the way they should behave, and the goals they should have. And they call this reality, and they call those of us who reject it “crazy”. This is a way to make them feel safe. It helps them maintain a world order which is familiar, comfortable, predictable.

The human being’s greatest wish is the admiration of others. Our greatest fear is embarrassment. This seminar is about leaving behind admiration and embarrassment, because we are different. We are in Korczak’s lineage. Our goals are unreasonable, illogical, unconventional, outrageous, extraordinary. We will carve monuments into the sides mountains. And we will bear their suspicion and occasional mockery with joy. When we are activating a project we take personally, we are never embarrassed. And the world’s admiration or not is not our concern. Admiration is nothing more than an opinion. All we are concerned with are the tiny steps we are taking towards the completion of our task.

Korczak’s descendants in front of model of the completed monument.

How do we make a project personal? Think of this orphaned son of Polish immigrants. Think of his sacrifice to our country and the wound he endured for it. Think of the high ideal he must have held America to. What might the notion of home and family meant to him? And how might it have touched his heart – this orphaned child –  and galvanized his purpose and vision when the Lakota elders came to him, and said “We have lost our home and our family. Your country took it from us. We wish to be recognized. We wish to honor our greatest forefather. And we want you to create this honor.”

You see, Korzcak didn’t build a monument for the Lakota. He built a monument for himself, and therefore for all of us. The only way he could endure the brutal South Dakota winters, the heat and dust of the summer building time, the strain his mission put on his family, the breakdowns and set backs, the lack of support and recognition, the only way he could get through all of it and maintain his integrity was if the project was personal. How personal? I submit to you that it’s this personal:

If I don’t complete this project then I have no integrity. None.

When you make your project personal, you no longer have a project. You have a mission. And when you’re on a mission, you don’t care much about embarrassment or admiration. It doesn’t matter when people call you crazy. It doesn’t matter how long it takes. All that matters is achieving your goal.

Here’s another true story.

The Personal: I am an only child whose parents split up when I was three. To this day I struggle with a sense of “otherness” and have grown into a grandiose introvert. Family and community have become – for obvious reasons – extremely important for me. I have struggled with the concept of value my whole adult life, in particular the way money defines value. I believe that performance creativity saved my life, but I had to weed out my narcissism from it before it could become a transformational force for others. I now understand my creativity as a gift I have been given which is only activated and meaningful when I offer it to others. I used to be ashamed of my tendency to lead. I regarded it as a mask for my insecurity. But now I embrace it as another gift. It has nothing to do with value; it is simply something else I can offer to others.

The Project: White Pines Productions is an organization I created to explore new ways (which are actually old ways) to be an artist in the world. Some of what White Pines is about is a commitment to communities and a dedication to sustaining artists. This seminar is a platform for me to describe what my journey with White Pines has shown me, and to share it with others.

How the Project is Personal: Artistic creativity saved my life, so it can save other lives. And by “save”, I mean bring clarity, purpose and activity to lives which before have felt muddy, stuck and meaningless. This project promotes the outrageous notion that money is not a barrier to any project, and that we are in charge of how we value what we make. This project is a way to activate gifts – mine and others’. This project builds community, celebrates creativity and organizes projects into action. It comes directly out of my personal life, and so is an aspect of my self. I take this project personally.

If I don’t complete this project then I have no integrity. None. 

The monument today.


This is an exercise from the seminar: making your project personal.

  • In what ways is your project based on personal life experience?
  • How does identifying the personal aspect of your project change your own relationship to it?
  • How will you know when the project is complete?