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Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Shrouded in Loss: The Black Hawk Memorial

The Black Hawk Memorial stands nearly 50 feet tall and rises on a 77 foot bluff above the Rock River in Oregon, IL. It pays homage to the Chief of the Fox and Sauk tribes who fought against the United States in the War of 1812. Lorado Taft designed the statue in 1908, long after the memory of this chief -- who had controlled the region of the Mississippi and Rock Rivers until the 1830s -- had vanished.

Taft sheathed him in a blanket and simplified his form to focus on the face. The main ingredient is concrete, an interesting contrast to the wild environment, and to the more radiant granite and bronze of tomb memorials. Using a hollow core and iron tie rods, Taft and his student John Prasuhn created a broad sweeping column for the body leading up to the sad, heroic face.

Black Hawk died in 1838 and Native American culture also died, a fact not lost on Taft when he chose a generalized face rather than a likeness of Black Hawk. Taft considered this statue is the Eternal Indian, symbolizing grief on a monumental scale. The artist knew deep sadness continually resonates and he did not attempt to pacify its presence.

Simultaneously, he was working on Eternal Silence, a commission for Dexter Graves' tomb 100 miles away in Chicago. Black Hawk was Lorado Taft's own inspiration on the site owned by Eagles' Nest Art colony he had founded in 1898. When his funds ran short, the state of Illinois paid for the statue's completion in 1911.

Chief Black Hawk lost his land and was forced to move to Oklahoma in 1831, a resettlement which made it
possible for Graves and 12 other founding families to move to Chicago from Ohio. The artist must have known this irony when he was creating the statues. The memory of Black Hawk looms much larger and more specific than the memory of Graves; he commands a part of the environment.

Lorado Taft possessed a grand vision--equal to Black Hawk's, for his students and art, but his reputation as a sculptor seems to be regional. An influential writer and teacher at the Art Institute, he made a large Fountain of Time near the University of Chicago, The Blind at the University of Illinois in Urbana, and the Columbus Monument at the Union Station in Washington. An online group follows his work.