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Arts & Life

Free Your Inner Second-Grader With Snowman Sculpting Tips From A Pro

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INTV Gene / (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Much of Colorado now has snow on the ground, so if you’re looking for a creative, outdoor, socially distanced activity, why not build a snowman?

Steve Mercia is a competitive snow sculptor and founder of the Berthoud Snowfest, which took place last weekend. He joined Colorado Edition to share some creative tips on leveling up your snowman game.

Interview Highlights:
These interview highlights have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Henry Zimmerman: Tell us about your process for sculpting snow. How did you get involved in that?

Steve Mercia: My whole life growing up, my father was a painter, a drawer, a wood carver. And so I saw the potential there. But snow sculpting kind of caught me off guard.

The process (starts by) coming up with ideas. You have to keep in mind that snow is not structural. If it's not frozen, it won't hold its own weight. It's not like a piece of steel. You need to come up with an idea that's forgiving. During warmer temperatures, you can make this a little fatter or that a little fatter to make it stand.

Once you have an idea, you draw it. Now, I need to make a scale model — a lot of the artists use clay for that. Now your idea has turned from two-dimensional to three-dimensional and you can start adding details. That's when the fun starts because you can actually see it and you're bringing it to life.

So it definitely sounds like a little bit of art and a little bit of physics, a little bit of science.

Water is definitely unique and in its physical properties. It's the only compound that will expand when it freezes. So, yes, there’s dynamics in the block. There's always water, there is always movement in the block. The artist needs to keep that in mind. Yes, Mother Nature is always a team member and you have to use her to the best of your advantage. You're not going to carve during the middle of the day when it's 60 degrees. You're not going to get good detail that way. But in the middle of the night, when it's 20 degrees, the water is more frozen, more solid. That's when the details really start to pop.

What sort of tips do you have to get started building a better snowman?

You can build the regular snowman, but you can fill a five-gallon bucket of snow, add some water, add some slush, and now you've got some cement, so to speak, where you can start adding features to the to the round, regular-shaped snowman.

You could start thinking outside the box and you can fill five-gallon buckets and stomp them down — get the snow in there really tight and you can stack five gallon buckets up and make a snowman.

You could also spend a little bit of money, make some plywood forms. You need pieces of plywood — they wouldn't need to be very big — a couple of feet by a couple of feet. And you could stomp snow in that plywood form, remove it, and then you've got a block of snow to work with. From there you can use your imagination, let the second grader inside of you out.

We know that snow is an ephemeral medium. As an artist who works exclusively in the medium of snow, can you can reflect on what it's like to produce such fleeting works of art?

Two years ago at Nationals, we were carving through a polar vortex. The temperatures were minus 30, minus 40 for the first few days of the competition. We were doing our piece and we made it wicked thin. It was progressing very nicely. But overnight from Friday to Saturday morning, it went from minus 20 to 40 degrees in a matter of six hours. It was incredible. The amount of movement in my piece — it literally exploded and crumbled. But that disheartening feeling of spending all that time creating a masterpiece and gone in minutes.

I understand that you also work on bringing a new snow sculptors to the fold.

Last year was the first year I introduced a high school program. I'm looking for the next Michelangelo. Football players and basketball players — sports in general in high schools seem to be given preferential treatment. The artists and the musicians, they seem to fall behind. And so how can we help? I want to encourage them and nurture them and find the next Picasso or the next Salvador Dali.

This conversation is part of KUNC’s Colorado Edition for Dec. 14. You can find the full episode here.

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