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Perpetual Motion in Breckenridge snow

Stan Wagon looks back at 13 years of snow sculpting

(Left) Eva Hild, her model, and the completed work. (Right) A view at night, showing the effects of the new LED lighting system at the 2011 Breckenridge International Snow Sculpture Championships. Click on the photo to read how this year's sculpture emerged from the snow. The sculptures, well-preserved by this week's chilly weather, are on display for a few more days. PHOTOS BY RICH SEELEY.

Editor’s note: Stan Wagon is a professor of mathematics and computer science at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota and a backcountry explorer and mountaineer.  He lives in Silverthorne for part of the year. Click here to visit his website. And click here to visit Seeley’s website.

By Stan Wagon

Perhaps some of you have looked at the snow sculptures on display in Breckenridge and thought: “That doesn’t look so hard and would be fun to do.”

That is what I thought back in 1998 when I talked a sculpting friend, Helaman Ferguson, into joining me and some others in submitting an entry for 1999. We were accepted and sculpted our intended piece, but we were really beginners as far as tools went.

The following year we approached another sculptor, Robert Longhurst, and our work earned three prizes (Second Place, People’s Choice, and Artists’ Choice). Thus began a sequence of 11 sculptures in 13 years for Dan Schwalbe of Minnesota and me, working with some of the finest sculptors in the country: Ferguson, Longhurst, Bathsheba Grossman, Brent Collins, Carlo Séquin, and David Chamberlain. We have earned three silver medals and two honorable mentions. Our sculptures have been featured on the poster several times.

This past January we went overseas for talent and recruited Eva Hild, a remarkable sculptor from Sweden. Richard and Beth Seeley, of Silverthorne, have been on the team for the last five entries. Visit Hild’s website here.

The event is remarkable for the quality of the snow blocks, which are created from artificial snow produced by the Breckenridge Ski Area, and the quality of the competition, as the event draws experienced snow sculptors from around the world. This year we worked beside the Yukon team and a team from Franklin, Wisconsin. Both had intriguing designs, and sculpted them well. It is fun to learn new techniques from other teams.

Video by Rich Seeley

Our work this year was an abstract design, Perpetual Motion, that was more complicated than anything we had tried before. Eva arrived from Sweden ready to work and we first practiced on a five-foot block I made in my driveway in Silverthorne. That went well and our plan, based on sawing off some giant planes during the first day and a half and then using an ice-fishing auger to get the holes started, seemed like it would work. For the first time we had a decent wire saw, and that cut the planes quickly and cleanly.

From then it was a matter of working the snow until the final design took shape, taking care to not break through any of the thin surfaces. When one sees light through the surface, it is getting is too thin! We worked through part of Friday night and by the finish at 10 a.m. on Saturday had just what we wanted: the shape was elegant and curvy and thin, with intriguing holes and saddles everywhere.

We were disappointed to not place in the top three, but we know we created something that was world-class as far as modern art goes, and I rank it as the best snow sculptures our team has ever made. The real highlight was working with Eva all week. Her usual ceramic work is constructive while snow sculpture is destructive. But she worked competently and hard all week — it was difficult to pull her away from the sculpture — and bravely helped us carve it down as thin as we dared.

Wagon's first sculpture for the 1999 event in Breckenridge has been captured in stone at Macalester College. Click on the image to vist Wagon's website for the background information on this intriguing piece.

Carving such high quality snow is a real treat. In just a few days one can create something that would take years in stone. Indeed, my employer, Macalester College, acquired a granite version of our first sculpture from 1999. The stone version is six feet high and took nine years to complete.

This year the organizers set up cameras in the hope of getting time-lapse photography of the whole week. That will be an awesome bit of video to see when it is ready.

Click here to see a detailed history and photos of all Wagon’s past snow sculpting projects.

Click here to read Wagon’s Summit Voice story on Colorado arch hunting.

Click here to read Wagon’s story on backcountry skiing Utah’s La Sal mountains.

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