Extremely cool art

Every January, strange creatures appear in Breckenridge, Colo. You might spot a dragon, an elephant, or a pair of giant hands in a parking lot of the winter resort. Other strange but graceful objects also take form as teams from around the world compete to create sculptures of snow.

This year, 15 teams came from Switzerland, Germany, Italy, England, Mexico, Russia, Argentina, Canada, and the United States. They sent in drawings of their proposed sculptures months ago. A selection committee chose the final competitors based on their sketches.

Teams began working on Tuesday, Jan. 16, and had until Saturday morning (Jan. 20) to finish. These statues are a lot of work!

Instead of rolling a few balls of snow together, snow sculptors carve huge snow blocks. Before they arrive, the snow is carefully prepared. First, snow is packed into 10-by-10-by-12-ft. blocks. Man-made snow is used to make sure the snow is wet enough to hold together well. The snow is packed tightly so that it will hold its shape when carved.

This was Stan Wagon's third year on the Minnesota team. He and teammate Dan Schwalbe teach mathematics at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn. All their sculptures have been based on mathematical concepts. Last year's entry, "Rhapsody in White," took second place. It also won the People's Choice and Artists' Choice awards.

On Saturday, Wagon and his team didn't do as well. They won no prizes. A team from Suhr, Switzerland, took first prize with "Circle of Life." The Russian team was second with "Izla-Spa." A team from Quebec, Canada, won third with "Nylon Island."

But according to Mr. Wagon, everyone is a winner at a snow-sculpture contest. People are friendly, and teams have time to get acquainted. Some teams don't speak a lot of English, but they're all there to have fun. So are the 40,000 people who come to check out the sculptures during the contest.

Each team can have four sculpting members, plus one person to take pictures, run errands, and answer visitors' questions. Besides Wagon and Schwalbe, the Minnesota team consisted of John Bruning (head of a lensmaking company in Rochester, N.Y.) and Robert Longhurst (an experienced wood and stone sculptor from Chesterton, N.Y.).

Working in snow has a few advantages over wood or stone. If you chip out a little too much snow, you can probably pack some back in, something you can't do with stone. And the sculpting goes a lot faster.

No power tools are allowed. While hand saws and shovels are common, Schwalbe added a twist.

"Dan is an ice fisherman," Wagon explains. "When we tried using an ice-fishing drill, we soon found we could move large amounts of snow very quickly." They let other teams try the auger.

Sandpaper is useful, too. It helps to smooth the surface of the sculpture when it's nearly complete. The official judging criteria include artistic quality, creativity, expression, and technique (how the snow is utilized). But a good (smooth) first impression never hurts.

Height helps, too, Wagon says, if only to make the sculpture rise impressively. Smooth, thin surfaces let light through and give the piece a glow. Each year the Minnesota team learns more about making a beautiful, graceful work of art from a block of frozen water particles.

The Minnesota team also learns more about mathematics. They are sponsored each year by Wolfram Research Inc., a software company. Their software is used to help create the design for the sculptures.

Last year's sculpture was based on a geometric shape called an Enneper's Surface. It's a saddle shape based on a circle. It was discovered and named by German geometer Alfred Enneper in 1864.

This year's sculpture, "White Narcissus," also contains saddle shapes. Wagon says there are special rewards for mathematicians in creating such sculptures.

"True understanding can be obtained only by interacting with the piece in a truly three-dimensional way." he said in last year's acceptance speech. "We can sculpt a complicated shape and so learn much more about it. It's a glorious opportunity and tremendous fun."

Do they get cold, working in the snow?

"Not really," Wagon says, "as long as you dress warmly.... In fact, we sometimes have to put up canopies over the sculptures during the day so the sun doesn't melt them."

The sun would eventually have its way if the sculptures were left alone. But soon snowplows will clear the parking lot. That's one advantage stone sculptures have over snow. And that's also why you won't find any snow sculptures in museums.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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