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My Unforgettable Trip
to Mount Rushmore

Kay Smith Artist Laureate of IL Mt. Rushmore, near the Black Hills, South Dakota

Mt. Rushmore, near the Black Hills, South Dakota

Artist Laureate of Illinois

Mt. Rushmore

That September day when I drove to visit Mount Rushmore for the first time became a day I’d never forget. The sun was shining and the brilliant blue sky put everything into sharp focus. The long road I took was clearly marked. It would eventually come to a lookout that would bring me face to face with the huge images. The road soon became heavily forested on both sides and all I could see was the path in front of me. I was beginning to doubt if I was on the right road. Could I have missed it? I drove around a curve and my god, there was the lookout! But I was driving too fast and it had come upon me too quickly, so I slowed and went back. The view was magnificent. Two other cars were there. We were all dumbstruck by its majesty, overwhelmed by the presence of these granite heroes.

But hard work awaited me at the foot of Mt. Rushmore. I was permitted to set up my easel to paint and wander wherever I wanted to go. I chatted with the Park Rangers, mingled with the tourists, and somehow managed to get this monumental scene onto my 20” x 24” watercolor paper. It has become one of my favorite paintings because it captures the breathtaking experience that has stayed with me all these years.

I have always been fascinated with the four United States presidents carved into the side of Mt. Rushmore. I wondered why these four particular presidents were chosen. The likenesses are those of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, and Theodore Roosevelt. Washington and Lincoln made sense as our most revered presidents. But the choice of Jefferson and Roosevelt was not so clear. Here’s what I found out on my painting trip.

Each of these U. S. Presidents represents a significant chapter in the first 130 years of American history. George Washington was our nation’s founder. The American Revolutionary war General won our independence from Great Britain and became the first U.S. President. Washington is known as the “father of our country.”

Thomas Jefferson symbolizes philosophy, as author of the Declaration of Independence. During his presidency, Jefferson purchased the Louisiana Territory from France, doubling the size of the United States and creating the idea of Manifest Destiny.

Abraham Lincoln’s preservation of our nation represents unity. As our 16th president, he held a strong conviction against slavery and fought to uphold the union during our country’s bitter Civil War.

Theodore Roosevelt embodies the expansion of the United States. He led the country’s growth through the early 20th century. The 26th president was instrumental in the construction of the Panama Canal which linked the east to the west.

Between October 4, 1927, and October 31, 1941, Sculptor Gutzon Borglum created the colossal carvings. (George Washington’s head is 60 feet tall, his nose 21 feet tall. ) His four hundred workers climbed 500 steps each day to reach the job site. Most were miners from the area who had given up looking for gold and were willing to learn how to sculpt faces out of rock. They did not know their hard labor would be so durable. Only one inch of the monument’s surface will erode over the next 10,000 years.

Kay Smith Artist Laureate of IL Independence Hall Philadelphia Pennsylvania

These images are a unique resource. They preserve history, encourage art appreciation, and facilitate commercial applications. The organization or individual that acquires the Collection or its core paintings will be a steward of American history.

Kay Smith Artist-Laureate-of-Illinois

The Artist

Kay Smith has lived and painted in Chicago for over 70 years. An esteemed teacher, historian and lecturer, as well as painter, Kay is our Artist Laureate of Illinois, a lifetime appointment. She was also awarded the national George Washington Honor Medal.

Kay’s artwork has enjoyed major exhibits at the Harry S Truman Presidential Library and Museum, the Yorktown Victory Center and the Illinois Governor’s Mansion, among dozens of other venues. Most recently, the Pritzker Military Museum & Library commissioned her “Red Tails Escorting the B-17s” watercolor, honoring the legendary Tuskegee Airmen, which now hangs in its oral history room.

To view the entire Collection and discuss possibilities for its display, preservation or purchase please contact Kay Smith by text at 773.709.2690   email: or visit her website at    Printable Version

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