Carving Snow on a Cold Winter Day

By: Andrew McGivern, curator of exhibitions on February 11th, 2009

Winters in Wisconsin are not for the faint of heart. Daylight grows shorter as we approach the winter solstice and temperatures have been known to dip below zero and stay there for days on end. At times even the heartiest seek shelter to wait out a cold snap in hope of warmer weather.

Some Wisconsinites travel south for a break from the cold. For many who endure the winter here, we look for activities to entertain ourselves. One way is the Woodson Art Museum’s tradition of hosting snow sculptors who, over the course of a few days, carve a large block of snow, transforming it into a beautiful, albeit temporary, sculpture.

The Woodson’s first snow sculpture was carved in winter 1989-90 by Tom Queoff and Mike Sponholtz of Milwaukee and Mike Martino of La Crosse, Wisconsin, in conjunction with a city-wide celebration called Snow Magic. After the Snow Magic era, the Museum continued to work with the three sculptors, called Team USA.

The first five snow sculptures related to the Museum’s flagship exhibition Birds in Art and the permanent collection. Team USA designed and carved a stylized hatchling, followed by a snowy owl, crane, swan, and an architectural design with crane silhouettes.

In 1994 the Museum began its biannual series of children’s book illustration exhibitions. Artist Eric Carle’s works inspired a giant snow caterpillar based on the book The Very Hungry Caterpillar. It was a wonderful subject to carve in snow and was lit up at night with yellow and red lights so it glowed a beautiful golden color.

Subsequent children’s book-related snow sculptures include a kangaroo and panda bear from American and Australian book illustrations; a gingerbread house based on a Robert Sabuda pop-up book; a fireman with boy and cat from David Diaz’s Smoky Night; a one-eyed ogre and Rapunzel’s tower from Paul O. Zelinsky’s Awful Ogre’s Awful Day and Rapunzel; and in January 2008 a cow with two calves and Buzz Aldrin in a space suit from books illustrated by Wendell Minor.

Of all the sculptures that Team USA has carved for the Woodson, my favorite is the 2001 African mask that was a giant replica of a mask included in Spirit of the Mask. The actual mask was a human face carved in wood with beads, cowrie shells, and braided reeds; the back was muslin with braided reeds and bone representing an elephant. The exceptional snow sculpture was about ten-feet tall with beautiful textures and deep insets that produced wonderful shadows.

Over the years, the Museum has relied on a local contractor to build concrete forms in which the snow is placed. Wausau’s Public Works Department kindly provides the snow and dumps it into the forms. Area hotels provide rooms for the snow sculptors. Team USA has carved twenty-one sculptures at the Museum and other sites in Wausau over the years and we’ve become especially close to Tom, Mike, and Mike as a result of their annual visits.

Without a doubt, snow sculpting at the Woodson Art Museum offers a delightful distraction from the cold for the hearty folks of north central Wisconsin.

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