Historic print project underway at Steamboat’s Oehme Graphics
November 22, 2018
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Longtime Steamboat Springs resident Robert Ellsworth, step-grandson of the renowned artist and sculptor Gutzon Borglum, who was most famous for Mount Rushmore National Monument, stumbled upon a dynamite box in 1986.
Little did he know it contained a treasure trove of history.
In the box were 40 antique copper photogravure plates that were representations of Borglum’s sculptures.
"They were in a place that's as much like a broken down well-house as you could ever imagine," said Ellsworth, who found the plates at the home of his stepfather Lincoln Borglum in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas.
Lincoln Borglum actually helped complete the Mount Rushmore project once his father had passed, Ellsworth said.
"It was wet — full of other cast off things. It's incredible these survived."
Ellsworth, raised in South Dakota, moved to Steamboat in 1973 and hadn't done anything with the prints due to a busy career as a professional hunting guide between Colorado and Texas.
"I knew I had something, but I didn't even have time to sit down and figure out what, so I carried them around for a bit," Ellsworth said. “Then I took them apart and had a real look and them. I was astonished."
At Oehme Graphics, 40 prints of Gutzon Borglum's work, created from the found plates, were laid out on a large table in the main studio.
"I've tried several times to get them printed and to get them out to the public,” Ellsworth said. “Until I found Sue, I hadn't seen a beautiful product quite like this before. I failed to get images that balanced like this."
The prints were created with an intaglio printmaking or photo-mechanical process. Oehme said it involves a copper plate, which is engraved — adding a pattern to the plate — and coated with a light-sensitive gelatin tissue that had been exposed to a film positive, and then etched, resulting in a high quality intaglio-plate that can reproduce detailed continuous tones of a photograph.
"I mixed up some rich black ink and printed one of these plates and was amazed at the beauty of the image," Oehme said. "I felt immensely honored to be able to hold a piece of history in my hands."
After many months, Oehme and intern Joshua Allen have finally completed the first round of printing 40 images.
Borglum's work includes the bust of Abraham Lincoln, carved from a six-ton block of marble, which was exhibited in Theodore Roosevelt's White House and can be found in the United States Capitol Crypt in Washington, D.C., as well as the sculpture "Wars of America," a huge bronze sculpture found in Newark, New Jersey.
Other sculptures in the print collection include Borglum's version of "The Atlas," which features a woman carrying the world instead of a man like in Lee Lawrie's famous sculpture.
With a connection to the curator of the Mezzanine Gallery in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, Oehme said the curator is proposing that the suite of images be included in the celebration of the museum’s upcoming 150th anniversary. At least one of Borglum’s sculptures is part of the Metropolitan’s collection.
The Mezzanine Gallery is also going to offer the prints for sale, so that a museum goer could see the collection in the galleries and then purchase one or two prints for themselves.
"It's a lovely merger of the educational and historical component with a way to help fund the museum," Oehme said. "It's all very exciting."
"They're just these beautiful images that are also rare and historic in capturing all of Gutzon's best work,” Ellsworth said. "I would like to see that aspect honored and taken care of."
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After 80 days spent working on the prints —10 prints a day in a three-and-a-half hour timeframe — Oehme said there are no specific plans yet for the images to be shown in Steamboat.
For now, they are working on creating limited editions of the prints.
Remembering his famous grandfather, stepfather
"Gutzon knew what he was doing when he set out to make a statue — he got it done," Ellsworth said.
"Lincoln was a steady, reliable, gentle, intelligent fella, who was much under-mentioned in the Mount Rushmore project among other things," Ellsworth said. "He oversaw the completion of the Mount Rushmore National Memorial after Gutzon's death in 1941."
One of the slogans Ellsworth remembers written on Gutzon's studio wall was, "Never say I can't. The can'ts of this world are unknown in the world's work and unremembered in history."