They tried to call it the Sunshine State. In fact, scientifically speaking, South Dakota boasts more rays than Florida.
But in true Midwestern modesty, they let the title slip away. So then, what else is there to lure visitors to Sioux Falls and Rapid City and all points in between?
How about art?
Mount Rushmore National Memorial — where sculptor Gutzon Borglum proved that “If you carve it, they will come.” — is a great jumping off point.
It was the project of a lifetime. With his son, Lincoln, Borglum created 60-foot-high heads of four U.S. Presidents — Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt — by dynamiting the hillside and applying a pneumatic drill. In 1941, their iconic likenesses emerged fully realized for the art-loving public.
Today the memorial draws folks from all over the globe to admire the majestic quartet and set hearts pounding with pride in our country. (South Dakota officially became the Mount Rushmore State in 1992.)
Think those guys are big? Even more monumental is nearby Crazy Horse Memorial, the world’s largest mountain carving — yet, after 70 years of labor, so far only the warrior’s handsome head (87 feet tall) and arm are finished.
The project was suggested by Chief Henry Standing Bear to remind one and all of the heroism of the great Lakota leader. Work on the memorial will continue for decades on the 6,532-foot peak.
But in the meantime, visitors can crawl right along that vast and mighty outstretched arm to capture an unequalled view (by appointment and with a guide).
Special events at the memorial include laser light shows, organized hikes (seasonal Volksmarches), a speaker series, artist lectures and showcases and — twice a year — “night blasts,” featuring spectacular ceremonial fireballs and other features that light up the sculpture and the mountain.
The Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation’s mission is to preserve the living heritage of North American Indians, whose land this once was.
Visitors can witness Native American cultural influences throughout the state, but first let’s go to Rapid City, where a life-size bronze statue of each of our nation’s past presidents occupies a corner of a downtown street (maps available). (Obama’s will debut this summer.)
Half a dozen of those presidents slept in the Hotel Alex Johnson, adorned in grand old fashion with bison heads and Native American symbols. A block away, Prairie Edge Trading Co. & Galleries sells elegant artifacts by contemporary tribal artist (shields, rattles, moccasins, jewelry). And there’s more American Indian art at the Dahl Art Center, featuring a poignant exhibit of paintings and songs commemorating the massacre at Wounded Knee. An adjoining gallery showcases this year’s winners of the governor’s Best of the West competition.
Everyone’s a winner on Art Alley in Rapid City. The city’s psychedelic passageway showcases spray-painted murals that emerge, sometimes nightly, atop the rugged bricks. Then grab a craft cocktail (another art form) at Kol with a dinner menu that segues from sensuous pizzas to ribeyes.
Treasures of the Black Hills
Just west of Rapid City, we found, hidden in the pines, a tiny stave church known as the Chapel in the Hills.
It’s an exact copy of the 850-year-old Borgen Church of medieval Norway that blends pagan Viking symbols with early Christian crosses that adorn vertical logs under a wood-shingled roof.
A sliding window let lepers stand outside to hear the holy message. Nearby, a pioneer cabin brims with authentic furnishings — a violin, a spinning wheel — while a grass-roofed gift shop showcases All Things Norwegian.
Hill City, a bonbon of art amidst the eye candy of the Black Hills (about 30 minutes from Mount Rushmore), is the site of a gallery where the translucent watercolors of Jon Crane capture the passing of the seasons. Randy Berger of Warriors’ Work Gallery, meanwhile, spotlights contemporary American Indian work — plus the elite leather jackets he fabricates. Add in brats and spaetzle at the nearby Alpine Inn, a must-see Bavarian restaurant and hotel.
If art on a grand scale is your thing, check out Chamberlain on the Missouri River to celebrate American Indian heritage. Near the river’s bluff is a must-see — artist Dale Lamphere’s Dignity, a 50-foot personification of Lakota female fortitude, created with stainless steel and completed in 2016.
Also on the river, sits the St. Joseph Indian School, which is on a mission to erase the traumatic memories of forced separation from families of decades past. Here children from too-tiny-to-teach communities win residential spots (free) — among a dozen homes with doting house-parents — so they can study a core curriculum plus Lakota words, ways and religion. There’s a gym and swimming pool, too.
The adjoining Akta Lakota Museum & Cultural Center hosts a treasury of artifacts, from buffalo skins to birchbark canoes.
Off the beaten path that is I-90, sits tiny Faulkton (population 700), which punches way (way) above its weight when it comes to art. In fact, noted Australian mural painter Guido van Helton chose the town’s white grain silos onto which to depict his vision of South Dakota’s solid social values personified by a pair of kids cavorting around its curves.
As he worked, the town hauled out lawn chairs and coolers to watch Guido’s progress. While you’re here, pause for a ride on the 1925 carousel and peek at the buffalo roundup mural, too. (Note: Van Helton is expected to paint in Mankato this summer.)
Watertown and Brookings
That white-columned, redbrick building ruling the landscape in Watertown, South Dakota?
No, not a college. Not city hall, either. It’s the Terry Redlin Art Center, showcasing the Master of Memories — 165 original oil paintings of rural scenes, prints of which sold out each time one rolled off the presses. As a teenager, Redlin lost a leg in a motorcycle accident, but turned tragedy into a new life when insurance money enabled him to enroll in art school in St. Paul.
Watertown, a city of 20,000, also offers a sculpture walk featuring 13 new creations each year.
Brookings, an hour south down I-29, boasts an art museum on the university’s campus, where seven galleries celebrate a range of styles from Harvey Dunn’s Fences, Cows, Plows and Oxen to fun and futuristic works fabricated from felt.
In Sioux Falls, you can meet up again with artist Lamphere, who is completing final touches of his Arc of Dreams. The massive stainless steel sculpture will span across the Big Sioux River downtown — nearly the length of a football field. At the center of the arc, 70 feet above the river, there will be a 18-foot gap, representing “the leap of faith dreamers take to see their dreams come true.”
Nearby, the new outdoor venue, Levitt at the Falls, is preparing to offer 50 free concerts this, and every, summer — with room for crowds of 3,000 folks, plus food trucks.
Sioux Falls offers a sculpture walk of its own, too. In fact, it’s the largest one in the entire country, with 59 opportunities for selfies in front of the art.
The venture rejuvenated a sleepy downtown, now humming with destinations for dining, clubbing and shopping at only-in-South Dakota finds like Zandbroz, a general store where you’ll discover bandanas, antiques and more, including an eccentrically curated books section featuring the caveat, “batteries not included.” Pick up your yard cow here, too.
Washington Pavilion hosts the city’s official art collection, with galleries ranging from current socio-politically-tinged Native American works to those of university faculty.
Finally, be sure to swing by the iconic Falls Park to see the falls that named the city — nature’s own sculpture of water rushing over the blush-colored stone of South Dakota known as Sioux Quartzite — the rock that gave the town the nickname of America’s Pinkest City.
Learn more at travelsouthdakota.com.
Carla Waldemar is an award-winning food/travel/arts writer. She edits the annual Zagat Survey of Twin Cities restaurants and writes food and travel articles for publications around the world. She lives in Uptown