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From Mud to Bronze
Oct 7, 2011
As a student at South Dakota State University in Brookings, I found myself in Lincoln Music Hall quite often. I can’t count how many times I passed the bronze bust of Abraham Lincoln, which serves as the centerpiece of the building’s marvelous marble foyer. Never once did I wonder who made it. Turns out, it was a quiet Norwegian who learned to sculpt using Minnehaha County mud and became one of the most well known artists of his generation.
Gilbert Risvold grew up on a farm near Baltic. He went to country school, where teachers noticed the boy’s talent for crafting images from mud. He attended South Dakota State College and studied under Ada Caldwell (who also taught Harvey Dunn). Caldwell saw Risvold’s potential and recommended he apply to the prestigious Art Institute of Chicago.
As is the case with many artists, Risvold struggled to find his place. Nearing the end of his patience with sculpture, he entered a contest that challenged artists to create a statue of renowned Illinois politician Stephen Douglas. Out of 75 entries, Risvold won. The state bought his sculpture and placed it at the state capitol in Springfield, where you can find it today.
Risvold’s success with the Douglas statue propelled his art career. He did a statue of Idaho governor Frank Steunenberg, created a war memorial for Oak Park, Illinois and crafted the Mormon Battalion Memorial (perhaps his most well known piece), which stands in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Riswolds (many have substituted the "v" for a "w" in the surname) still live in Minnehaha County. In fact, they gather every summer for a large family reunion at East Side Lutheran Church. A distant relative sent me a note about the event, which is how I discovered the art of Gilbert Risvold. In addition to his bust of Lincoln in Brookings, his statue of Mother Sherrard, founder of South Dakota’s first children’s home, stands in the state capitol.