Snow sculpting is becoming not only an artistic discipline, but a major spectator event.
Brett Tomczak remembers the moment. “We had 12 hours to go, and this is after working on this piece for days,” says the graphic designer, sculptor and Team Wisconsin member. “The deadline was approaching, and it was all going well. And then, suddenly, it all just collapsed. We stood there thinking how the judges had told us if we wanted to do well, we had to take more risks. But we just pushed this sculpture too far.”
This was no ordinary sculpture either. It was being cut out of a 25-ton block; not of marble or clay, or even of ice, but of snow. Indeed, from the US to Canada, to France, Switzerland and China, snow sculpting is becoming not only an artistic discipline, but a major spectator event. Winterfun, the US National Snow Sculpting Competition, one of the leading events, draws crowds of 60,000 who come to see creations abstract and mathematically precise, whimsical, topical or story-telling, but united by having been worked against the clock in the white stuff. Judges look for artistic expression as much as technical skill. Japan’s annual Sapporo Snow Festival draws two million visitors.
“It’s a very dynamic process because of snow’s characteristics,” says the aptly named Don Berg, organiser of the US competition (which, akin to the Jamaican bobsleigh team, draws competitors from unlikely destinations such as Mexico) and the man who first attached a snow-sculpting competition to the winter Olympics in Calgary 30 years ago this year. “Snow changes every day, such that we say the last member of any team is Mother Nature. And you have to be very flexible when working with her. As children we roll one ball of snow onto another and there’s a snowman, the icon of snow sculpting. But I’m continually fascinated by what can actually be accomplished in snow.”
With most but not all competitions banning power tools, this is typically achieved by a ramshackle selection of kitchen implements — cheese graters, potato peelers, chicken wire — which also explains why a lot of sculptures may take some 100 hours of work to accomplish. Sculptors use snow that is specially prepared and repeatedly tamped (‘pound up’ in snow-sculpting parlance) into a temporary frame. Key to the success of a sculpture is not just detail but creating shadow that expresses form — not easy with a material that reflects light — and a sense of the piece being lifted off the ground. Remarkably, when handled well, the tensile strength of snow allows an outstretched arm, for example, to be sculpted without the need for bracing.
“It can be amazing how warm it can get and yet the sculpture holds its form, because the snow insulates,” explains Mark Mason, of professional snow-sculpting outfit Team Snowtastic, which also carves large-scale pieces (16,000 square foot and two weeks in the making, in one instance) for corporate clients as diverse as Coca-Cola, NBC and city governments. “But the nemesis is when there’s just a small speck of, say, asphalt caught up in your snow. Slowly that warms, eats up its surrounding area and has this cumulative negative effect. So, any contest now is very concerned to ensure its snow is pure. Get it right, though, and the results can be spectacular. There’s a wow factor.”
Especially perhaps, when it goes wrong: the Mexican team at this year’s Breckenridge (Colorado) International Snow Sculpture Championships saw its entry fall down literally five seconds before the deadline. The competition was won by a team from Mongolia; last year China won; indeed, with the Harbin Ice Festival, China is fast becoming a leading light in snow sculpting.
“Competitions such as this are now happening all around the globe, with the art becoming more and more credible,” says Austyn Dineen, spokesperson for the event. “There’s lots to get right, not least the right amount and quality of snow, but they’re becoming signature events in lots of places, so standards are getting ever higher. So far, nobody has been discovered working deep in the night on their sculpture with a power tool, but the events are getting increasingly competitive.”
That’s despite the fact that most competitions do not offer prize money. “It’s all for the glory,” says Dineen. Indeed, the annual event in Valloire, France’s only snow-sculpting competition to date, this year saw 170 applications to compete from around the world, only 17 of which — just one in 10 — were subsequently deemed to offer a suitably challenging design to see them selected to enter the competition. “These days they’re typically very serious sculptors, well versed in working with the usual variety of materials,” says Cédric Fogarolo, Valloire’s director of tourism. “Sometimes we just want to see what someone who has never worked in snow before can do. Sometimes it’s amazing. And sometimes it’s a fail.”
But, as Tomczak learned, you have to keep pushing yourself in the making of chilly masterpieces, even if each is destined to be knocked down or melt away. “Of course, it’s great when you see people who have never before seen world-class sculpture in something that isn’t ice,” he says. “Ice they get. Snow seems amazing, given there’s no superstructure under any of the snow.
“But you want to keep doing harder sculptures for your own satisfaction too,” he adds. “Some forms are just especially challenging. A tree can look almost like a tree and still work, but the human form, for example, has to be right, or spectators can sense that there is something just off with it. But what I really want to do next is a geometric abstract. Getting that perfect curve, or that perfectly flat plain in snow, especially if the sun comes out, well, that’s just so hard.”
29th Annual International Snow Sculpture Championships Begins Jan. 21, 2019
Snow carving in Breckenridge began as a local pastime; today, decorated snow artists transform 25-ton blocks of snow into an outdoor art gallery. 16 teams, made up of four artists, from across the globe typically sculpt 65 hours across five days of competition. Watch blocks being built and teams sculpting Jan. 21 – 25. Viewing weekend is Jan. 25 - 30. New for 2019, fireworks display will take over the night sky on Saturday, Jan. 16. For more information go to GoBreck.com.
This article originally appeared in Billionaire's Giving Issue, December 2018. To subscribe contact