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Freeze-form Art

Team Vermont goes west for a snow job


My legs feel like Jell-O and my hands are too sore to make a fist. My teammates and I are scrambling to get our belongings into our bags, because our ride to the Milwaukee airport is 20 minutes early. We have just competed in the 19th United States National Snow Sculpting Competition in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. Adrian Tans and I have been here once before, in 2000. Along with our third teammate, Neal Werntgen, we comprise the Vermont State Snow Sculpture Team, and we won an invitation to the nationals by placing first in last year's competition at the Burlington Winterfest. We did not, however, win in Wisconsin. More on that later.

The hardest part of these competitions, I've noticed, is not transforming a giant cylinder of snow into a work of art; it's trying to leave. During the three-day festival in Lake Geneva, we were put up at a posh hotel. But we didn't have much time to enjoy it. Mostly we toiled over our entry. Our tools and gear lay strewn about our temporary headquarters, ready for use. That's about the only thing we were ready for. And maybe breakfast.

Everybody has sculpted snow. Roll it into large balls and you have your classic snowman. Get more creative and you can make archways, igloos or dragons with tails kids can slide down. If you pack it in a large empty form, say a cylinder, you can get downright artistic with it. One of Michelangelo's first large pieces was a snow sculpture. Apart from the fact that it's weather-dependent, snow is a near-perfect medium. It works well both additively and reductively; it has the strength -- when compressed -- to make precarious structures hold true; and it can even be shaved and eaten with maple syrup!

Four years ago I saw a call to artists from the Vermont State Snow Sculpture competition. I called the number and filled out an application. One month later, two friends and I were tackling a large block of snow on the Burlington waterfront. Using kitchen knives, windshield scrapers and a borrowed shovel, we made a woman riding a tortoise into the lake.

The event was judged by all the participating sculptors -- this also happens at the nationals -- and somehow we claimed first prize. Events like this go on in every cold state of the union, and each top team of sculptors goes on to one of the biggest winter festivals in America.

And a big show is exactly what it is. The event in Lake Geneva draws 50,000 spectators every year. On the last day of sculpting, a trip to the restroom can mean a slow crawl through the crowds. The Winterfest offers other events as well, such as half-pipe competitions, helicopter rides and ice surfing. Since we were part of the show, we only saw our hotel, the sculpture field, the boathouse where lunch was served and a few local bars. But no matter. We came for the snow -- the best snow, as the event organizer put it, that money can buy.

To get the purest, whitest snow, Lake Geneva's Winterfest officials do not rely on capricious Mother Nature, but rather on a ski resort a few miles away. The snow is trucked in and then packed in cylindrical forms, using a method we in the business refer to as "stomping." Yep, someone gets in there and stomps around on it. Then more snow is dumped in the cylinder and they stomp around on it some more. The compression and the sheer weight of the snow -- about five tons -- results in the raw material for 15 of the best snow-sculpting teams in the U.S.

Here's how it works: Each three-person team has 72 hours to complete its piece. Once you subtract the six hours for meals and the two-hour party where you meet your sponsor -- a local businessperson who has paid for your hotel room -- you basically have to work your butts off until they tell you to stop. But we're snow sculptors. We're tough.

One of the competing teams this year was dressed like Vikings and carried fur-covered battleaxes. A team called the Kilted Snow Weasels was the Vikings' arch-enemy. They carried fur-handled machetes and, of course, wore kilts. The Alaskans had a big painted tool box that read, "Three Dudes From Anchorage," and the Wisconsin guys, sculpting next to us, wore fake moustaches and sang funny barbershop quartet-style songs.

Most of the other teams -- including ours -- did not have gimmicks, but many wore matching outfits, because being on a team means sponsorship. Free stuff! We supplied the entire field of sculptors with Green Mountain Coffee and some of those VT Euro-style stickers, courtesy of E.F. Williams and Co. in Stowe. We lacked identical jackets, but did have something that made all the other sculptors jealous: slick Gore-Tex gloves. Kombi, the ski-glove manufacturer in Essex Junction, kicked in a few pairs for Team Vermont. We were a ragtag trio, but our hands were warm -- and in snow sculpting, that's what counts.

Of course, you need to keep more than your hands warm. We were told at our informational meeting that drinking in the sculpture field is illegal, so we had to be discreet with our beverages. I went with a coffee-and-Kahlua while Adrian opted for coffee with Jack Daniels. Ever the proper gentleman, Neal stuck with the beer they provided us in the boathouse. Our first night we also spent a few hours in a local pub called Hogs and Kisses, toasting Skadhi, the Norse goddess of winter.

Mostly, though, our time in Wisconsin was spent nose to the... cylinder. Snow sculpting is hard work. It's also a reflective time, with just you and your teammates all focused on that common goal. For our entry this year we decided on a little nature scene: a hummingbird feeding on a flower, wings upright, a frozen moment in time. The bird itself was 8 feet tall, balanced perilously on only three narrow points at the tip of its beak, belly and tail.

There is a certain moment during sculpting that always amazes me -- when it stops looking like a giant cylinder and begins to resemble whatever you're making. All those late-night, beer-sogged plans with your friends literally start taking shape right in front of you, glistening in the sunlight.

On the third day of the Wisconsin competition, no matter how close to finished you may be, the organizer's voice comes over the loudspeakers and counts backwards to "tools down" -- 11 o'clock. We then had to stop sculpting and become judges. We voted for our top five favorite works based on overall concept, technique and clarity of message.

This is always the hardest part for me. Holding my clipboard, I walked around and studied each piece. The sculptures were fantastic. There was a group of acrobats. A stylized weeping willow tree. An elephant in a hot tub. A car leaning on a giant face, the car holding a small rhino balancing two Roman columns, which in turn cradled a large tea cup. Dolphins swimming in Atlantis. A large Betsy Ross. A canoeist shooting through two large waves shaped like trout. There was also an hourglass, two tin soldiers, an angel and a humongous coyote head baying at the moon. They were all good -- though I thought Betsy Ross looked like an alien and the dolphins were a bit too Disney. But they all deserved to win, especially ours! That damn hummingbird looked real enough to take off.

In the end, though, the Wisconsin team's incredible "Weeping Willow" took first place. Alaska and Michigan came in second and third, respectively, and Wyoming took home the People's Choice Award.

While I was still scraping away earlier in the day, though, I heard what I thought was the best expression of which sculpture should win. As a couple walked by, the woman asked her companion which was his favorite. A moment passed. The flower I was working on was taking shape, I was beginning to see the part that wasn't there, and I heard the man answer her: "I think I like the white one the best."