Check out the stunning work on display at the International Snow Sculpting Competition.
Snow can be shoveled, piled and plowed, but it can also become a gorgeous form of art. Using the simple, pure medium of frosty precipitation, snow sculptors manage to capture the beauty of winter in a unique way. Snow sculpting competitions bring a sense of joy and friendly rivalry to the picture as artists compete to make unforgettable works, creating a special experience for both sculptors and spectators alike.
Every January artists gather at the International Snow Sculpting Competition — an annual event that’s been held for 28 years in the picturesque, serene mountain town of Breckenridge, Colorado. It’s one of the world’s most prestigious snow sculpting events, and tens of thousands of visitors come out to watch the sculptors at work during the five-day competition.
Two hundred and fifty teams apply to participate, and only 16 are selected and invited to come each year. Competitors come from all over the world, including Mongolia, China, Argentina, India, Italy, Switzerland and the United States. Each team has four members involved in planning and sculpting their pieces from start to finish.
Each team begins with the same conditions: a 12-foot block of snow that weighs 50,000 pounds and is molded into a block by volunteers. Called “snow stompers,” the volunteers literally stomp and pack down the snow the week before the competition starts. The sculptors then have five days to create something, and judges select winners for first, second and third place. There are also awards for People’s Choice, Kids’ Choice, and Artists’ Choice.
This year’s competition officially began on Monday, January 22, and the sculptors went to work to make sure they could get done with their sculpture by 9 a.m. that Friday. Music played over loud speakers, adding to the party-like atmosphere, as spectators watched the teams sculpt.
Every day, the sculptures gradually took shape — looking like strange formations early in the week but progressing into elegantly executed works of art as the competition ended. Winners were officially announced Friday, with Team Mongolia taking first place for their artwork titled “Secrets,” China taking second place for their sculpture called “Thinker,” and Team USA-Wisconsin (Vogt) taking third place for “Divine Dance.”
So what is snow sculpting like, and why does anyone initially get into it? I was able to track down one of the teams that competed and get an inside look into one man’s journey into snow sculpting.
Brett Tomczak is a sculptor for the USA-Wisconsin (Tomczak) team (there were two Wisconsin teams at this year’s competition). His team has competed in five other Breckenridge events as well as countless other competitions across America. Tomczak himself has been sculpting for over 20 years, and he was happy to talk about his love for the art and what it means to him to participate in events like Breckenridge’s International Snow Sculpting Competition.
Tomczak is 44 and has lived in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, most of his life. He first got into snow sculpting in the early ’90s during college. While attending the University of Wisconsin-Madison as a marketing major, he was starting to realize he didn’t like marketing enough to pursue it as a lifelong career. He’d begun considering graphic design when a buddy asked him to go to a snow sculpting competition.
“And I said, ‘Sure, why not?’” says Tomczak. “So I literally went to my kitchen in my college apartment and grabbed knives, forks and spoons. He swung by and picked me up, and we competed in what was then the Wisconsin State Snow Sculpting Competition.”
It was a natural fit — for both his graphic design career and his snow sculpting hobby. Tomczak correlates his over-20-year career in graphic design and his now-over-20-year love of snow sculpting. “For me as a two-dimensional guy, it’s really fun and challenging to do something three-dimensional in nature,” he says.
While graphic design is his job, he considers his profession more creative communication than personal art. Snow sculpting, to him, is the other side of the coin in that it’s purely art for art’s sake. “It’s my creative outlet to get out away from my screen for a week and go out to Breckenridge or these other competitions that we’ve done and get outside and physically dig into something,” he says. “It’s really kind of a reset for me.”
As he became more involved in the snow sculpting world, Tomczak was impressed at the caliber and versatility of people involved. There was great diversity, camaraderie and learning shared among competitors.
“It’s this really friendly community,” he says. “It’s like friendly-competitive. Everybody wants to do well, but people will let you borrow their tools, and they’ll tell you how they do things. We talk process. There’s a lot of learning — it’s a very close-knit community and very open. People are willing to share ideas and, like I said, even tools.”
Six years ago Team Tomczak applied for a chance to participate in the Breckenridge International Snow Sculpting Competition. To their surprise, they were picked out of hundreds of other teams, and they’ve been back now six years in a row.
“It’s like our Super Bowl of snow sculpting,” jokes Tomczak. “The snow is always perfect. You couldn’t get a more quintessential mountain town to go hang out in for a week, and it’s so welcoming and people are so awesome. I love the event.”
While every team approaches snow sculpting a little differently, in general the teams work off 3D molds, according to Tomczak. Planning in advance can help a lot during competitions — although he and his team have taken a more organic approach before by only drawing the front of the sculpture and figuring out the rest as they cut and shaped the piece on-site.
Unexpected variables also make for an exciting challenge, because the snow, temperature and weather can all affect the outcome of a sculpture, Tomczak notes. “You don’t know if it’s going to be 40 and sunny and things will be falling off your sculpture, or if it’s going to be 10 below and windy and snowy,” he says. “Mother Nature is kind of that extra team member for everyone.
But whatever the process or weather turns out to be, each team creates something stunning out of something as impermanent as snow. And that’s the beauty of the whole experience, as Tomczak says. “They take a parking lot and then turn it into literally a world-class sculpture gallery, and then two and a half weeks later, it’s gone,” he says. “There’s something enjoyable about creating temporary art…. It’s one of those things that you have to see to know it existed.”
Often, one can forget how beautiful snow can be. It’s easy to write off as an inconvenience. However, snow sculpting shows us that it can truly become a piece of artwork worth viewing and enjoying — gone in just days but living in memories for years to come.