The culture of our area has been shaped by art. Rapid City is probably best known for its proximity to Mount Rushmore, where the faces of four presidents are carved into the mountain. Not far away is the Crazy Horse carving, a giant, three-dimensional carving of an entire mountain. Our city is filled with public art, with sculptures on many downtown street corners, and numerous other public works of art. The church has a long history of being a patron of the arts. Many classical works of music, painting, sculpture, theatre and other arts have religious themes. Art is known to inspire and to lead people to thinking of topics and issues that are beyond themselves.
On our recent vacation, we stopped going and coming to spend time with a new public sculpture that is located on the bluffs of the Missouri River near Chamberlain. Titled “Dignity” the metal sculpture by South Dakota Artist Laureate Dale Lamphere, stands 50 feet tall and depicts a Lakota woman with a Star Quilt billowing behind her.
As is true with all art, it takes time to take it all in.
Before going farther, it is important to note that South Dakota’s newest landmark had its origins in the deep generosity of Norm and Enable McKie. They commissioned the sculpture as a gift to the people of South Dakota. Working with landscape architect Patrick Wyss the dream is to develop a park for South Dakotans and our visitors to use for years to come. The artists’s statement describes some of the goals of the piece:
“Dignity represents the courage, perseverance and wisdom of the Lakota and Dakota culture in South Dakota. My hope is that the sculpture might serve as a symbol of respect and promise for the future.”
In a way, it has been interesting to have waited over a month from the dedication celebration to make our first visit. We have heard lots of comment and conversation from friends and acquaintances about the sculpture before seeing it with our own eyes.
The comments didn’t fully prepare us for the experience of looking at the remarkable piece of art. People have spoken of size and scale. They have mentioned the star quilt with its colors. They have reported on how it changes with the light of different times of day. They have commented on the LED lights that add to its nighttime appearance. But not many have spoken to me about the beauty of the sculpture. The face and features of the woman are impressive and, simply, beautiful. I hadn’t expected to be so taken with that aspect.
There will, of course, be critics. Some ask why she is facing the direction that she faces - just a little bit south of East. I suspect that on the average blustery day, standing atop those bluffs, I might face exactly the same direction, turning my back to the wind. The sculpture, however depicts a star quilt billowing away from the woman, as if the wind were blowing almost exactly the opposite direction of the prevailing. No worries, this is South Dakota. There will be days when the wind will shift to the southeast and line up with the sculpture. Some say that she is facing the sunrise, which is appropriate for a sculpture dedicated to the future of the state and its people. I’ve heard that she has turned her back on the town of Chamberlain. The bottom line is that a three-dimensional sculpture of a woman has to face some direction. As it is, it makes a wonderful impression from the parking lot and park area in which it is situated. Because there is also an older structure that is reminiscent of a Lakota tipi in the area which is of a smaller scale, it makes sense for the new sculpture to be a ways from that tipi so when they are viewed together one doesn’t dominate the other.
As to the cultural appropriateness of the sculpture, I am not qualified to comment and will wait to hear from others about their opinions. What I do know is that Lakota and Dakota culture is not a fixed entity forever frozen in time. It changes and evolves. The tradition of star quilts, which we see in all kinds of celebrations from honoring ceremonies to funerals, is something that came after reservation times. Quilting wasn’t an indigenous art, but rather one that has its roots in Europe. In contemporary Lakota culture, however, the quilts carry deep meaning and have been fully incorporated into the lives of the people. The woman depicted in the sculpture is wearing traditional dress - something seen only at pow wows and special ceremonies these days, but somehow it seems to fit very well to combine the traditional dress with the quilt. A historian would have trouble placing the sculpture in a particular moment of time, but perhaps its value to present and future generations is its ability to span time and not be connected to a particular date and place. It does have a transcendent quality. After all it is ten times as big as a living human person. From most angles of viewing one is looking up at the face of the woman.
For now, I feel a sense of gratitude to the generosity of the McKie family and a sense of appreciation for the vision of Dale Lamphere. Dignity is an incredible and memorable piece of outdoor art that will be a part of the story of our state for generations to come. I hope that we, who live and work in this place can aspire to some of the courage, perseverance and wisdom that it depicts. Perhaps the sculpture is just the inspiration we need.
Art enables us to express ideas and concepts that are beyond words and art such as this sculpture, designed to last for long periods of time, can have different meanings to different viewers. I know that I will be asking others what they think of the sculpture for years to come and listening with joy to their responses.