A Short Guide to the Ephemeral Art of Snow Sculpture
It’s time to get serious about playing in the snow.
In the history of public snow art, there’s probably never been a more fertile period than the mid-winter of 2020. In those scary first weeks of the pandemic, as lockdown restrictions came into effect, many people found themselves with an abundance of free time and few of the usual ways to spend it. So they went outside to play. Seemingly overnight, lawns and parks erupted with snowmen, like some sort of mass uprising.
“Everyone was really in their bubbles, and there was nothing to do and nowhere to go,” recalls Swapnaa Tamhane, a visual artist based in Montréal.
“When you remove all those distractions, you can embrace this simple, joyful act of making snow sculptures.”
While last winter’s snow-sculpting explosion revealed a lot of latent creativity, Tamhane noticed that most people had a stereotypical view of what snow art could be. Goofy caricatures? Absolutely. Abstract expressionism? Not so much.
One year later, even with a fast-spreading variant, entertainment options are still progressively returning to pre-COVID levels, which means fewer excuses to waste time in the snow. It’s a shame, Tamhane thinks, because snow is a wonderful artistic medium. Maybe we just need to give ourselves permission to play with it a little more seriously.
A privileged moment
Snow sculpting draws on a surprisingly venerable tradition in contemporary art. The celebrated British artist and environmentalist Andy Goldsworthy works with his bare hands to create ephemeral works of art in nature. His only materials are those he happens upon outside: leaves, twigs, earth, and water in all its states, but especially as snow. Goldsworthy’s snow works include a giant hollowed-out snowball, graceful arches, and elegant carvings on snowdrifts.
The unifying force in Goldsworthy’s art is the passage of time. “Change, light, growth, and decay are the lifeblood of nature, the energies that I try to tap through my work.”
For her part, Tamhane admires another renowned artist of the ephemeral, Marlene Creates, a Canadian environmental artist who often incorporates paper into her outdoor works.
Creates believes that making art in nature draws us into a special kind of presence. “It is a privileged moment involving a natural dimension of time,” she has written. Some things last and some things don’t. All we can count on is change.
In collaboration with Tamhane, we offer a few strategies for discovering that sort of “privileged moment” in the snow, as well as a few projects to try out this winter.
– Step 1 –
Start with fascination
Tamhane has long had a special fascination for snow, but it really took off when she moved from Toronto to Montréal four years ago. “It’s just such an event. Seeing the cars completely buried under what is essentially water. It’s amazing to me!”
She loves how transformative snow can be, how it changes the light in the city and alters the space of the street, making everything both brighter and smaller. Snow changes our aural environment too; it is an effective sound absorber and takes the edge off traffic. It even forces our bodies to move more slowly. Nothing upends our lives quite so gently as snow.
Letting yourself be amazed by snow creates an opening for inspiration. It’s everywhere, and it’s weird!
– Step 2 –
Study the texture of the snow
If you’re ready to get creative with snow, your next move is to take stock of your materials. As snowball makers and cross-country skiers will tell you, the quality of snow changes with the temperature.
“Snow has so many different textures,” Tamhane says. Rather than waiting for the right kind of snow, try a more collaborative approach and work with the day’s unique combination of density and moisture.
For very light, fluffy snow, Tamhane suggests tracing on its surface. With dense, heavy snow, you can get more detailed. In-between snow might let you work in a more monumental fashion. Explore! Try things out!
– Step 3 –
Experiment with different tools
Andy Goldsworthy would often use found tools to create his outdoor works: a rock or a feather picked up off the ground, or a branch pulled off a dead tree. When playing in the snow, an unusual implement might inspire fresh experimentation. Grab a broom or a rake from the shed to create interesting textures. Use a shovel or a two-by-four to beat forms into a snowbank.
And don’t forget about colour, says Tamhane. Food colouring in a spray bottle can add surprise and vibrancy to your snow sculptures.
– Step 4 –
Tamhane has devoted much of her art practice to exploring the lingam, a traditional symbol in Hinduism. “It’s a symbol that represents the Lord Shiva, creator and destroyer,” she explains. The lingam can be an oval shape, a short pillar, or an upward-growing cylinder. When a lingam occurs naturally, such as an ice stalagmite growing at the foot of the Himalayas, it becomes a sacred space, she says.
Tamhane has spent a lot of time travelling around India, studying its many shrines from a secular perspective. “I find it interesting how an object gains energy by all the people looking at it,” she says. We give meaning to things with our attention, and because abstract forms are less defined, they create more space for our mental projections.
If you give yourself some time to play with snow, forget about making familiar, recognizable characters. Instead, let yourself work on the level of simple shapes and abstract forms, such as a pyramid, a sphere, or a lingam. You may find the end result more satisfying, and in many ways, more interesting.
– Step 5 –
Spread into your environment
Another way to break out of our habitual approach to snow sculpture is to drop the idea of a single object in a particular spot. Instead, try to make something that extends widely in different directions. You can achieve this quickly with drawing or footprints, or more slowly with many small recurring forms.
Ready to start sculpting? Here are a few projects to try out this winter.
- Snow Shadows: If your snow is light and fluffy, grab a tool and trace the shadows that fall across the surface of the snow. When the shadows move, draw them again. Cut your lines deep and watch them soften under newly fallen snow, or brush them lightly for a more calligraphic line and then watch them disappear.
- Snow Shelf: Build a snow shelf in the alley, Tamhane proposes, and line it with snowballs: a pop-up snowball library for the neighbourhood kids!
- The Lingam Field: Pick a simple abstract shape and make as many as you can. Tamhane envisions a field of lingams, each a slightly different height, to give a sense of undulation. If you’re lucky, others will be inspired to add more and multiply your efforts.
- The Hollowness: If your snow is extremely wet and you want more of a challenge, try to recreate Goldsworthy’s giant empty snowball. Send us pictures if you succeed!
- Snow Arch: For a classical look, try building something more structural. Dig down into more densely packed snow and use a knife to carve out bricks. You can lay them on top of a form made of packed snow that you can remove afterward, or get help from friends to set them in place.