By Virginia Dean, Standard Correspondent
Using biscuit cutters, chisels and a variety of snow sculpting tools, it was the giant snow octopus that not only garnered first place for local residents Katie Runde of So. Royalton, Tony Perham of Woodstock and Shawn Braley of Norwich at Woodstock’s Vermont Flurry competition last February but also has now propelled the trio into the United States Snow Sculpture Nationals in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, this year.
“The idea came from one of Shawn’s sketches from years ago, and we all worked together the whole way through,” said Runde.
The sculpting took three days and coincided with Pentangle’s “Fiddler on the Roof” in which Runde was playing the clarinet.
“It was an intense weekend switching between the two,” said Runde. “Lyal and I had been colleagues at the South Royalton Market so I was already familiar with his work and knew he’d be great to work with. Of course, we were also both in awe of Shawn. We hadn’t worked together before but it gelled quite nicely and that made all the difference.”
The unpredictability and scale of the medium combined with the harsh working conditions made the sculpting stressful so their laid back, fun-focused team was the key to success, Runde said.
Now, the team — having lost Braley but gaining Lyal Michel formerly of Tunbridge and now of Newcastle, Maine — is busy sketching out ideas for this year’s sculpture, to be carved out of a nine-foot-by-eight-foot block of compressed snow.
“I’m excited for the energy Tony is going to bring to the Nationals team,” said Runde. “He’s got a lot of great ideas not only for designs but also for tools. Lyal and I are used to painting so we use pretty predictable media including brushes and pencils. You’ve got to get creative with snow sculpture. You never know what might make a good tool, from a curry comb to truss plating to a Japanese ice saw or a biscuit cutter.”
Perham has spent the last four years dabbling with snow sculpting, mostly in his front yard for the neighborhood to enjoy.
“It all started when I was making a snowman with my daughter and, after a few quick modifications, it was a snow bear!” said Perham. “It was fun seeing how people reacted. I was in love with every aspect of the idea of snow sculpting. Man versus nature and art is the prize!”
The team is also trying to raise funds to cover flights out west, not to mention a couple of extra lumber saws, curry combs and floor scraper blades.
“We’re grateful to Woodstock’s Melaza Bistro for hosting a fundraising concert/jam session and raffle on Friday, Dec. 18,” said Runde.
Items for the raffle included gift certificates from local businesses and prints from local artists, including the sculptors.
The learning curve of snow sculpting is steep, explained Runde who was relatively new to the field last year.
“It’s an unusual medium,” Runde said. “Most people think of snowmen when they think of snow art, particularly the amazing snow people in ‘Calvin and Hobbes’ — but it is an addictive process. You roll snow into balls and stack them or mold it between your hands. Snow sculpture is completely different. We carve away at giant, compressed blocks of snow. As you can imagine, there’s not a lot of room for error. Once a piece is chopped off, it’s gone! Furthermore, the consistency of the snow varies considerably depending on temperature, so if it’s too warm, it can be impossible to get the level of detail you originally intended. It’s definitely important (and, of course, always a challenge) to keep an open mind and flow with the medium.”
This year’s team is made up of a range of artists, Runde remarked.
“Both Lyal and I have backgrounds in two dimensional art and specialize in oil painting which is a far cry from carving out a nine-foot-by-eight-foot block of snow,” said Runde. “Tony is our 3D thinker. But we all agree about how a graceful curve is a graceful curve and a clean edge is a beauty to behold.”
Ordinarily, the sculpting process takes place over several days, Runde related.
“First, we use massive lumber saws and ice saws to mass out parts of the block we know we definitely don’t need,” said Runde. “It’s kind of finding the shape from the outside.”
The next day is to delineate generally where different features are going to be using floor scrapers or augurs. Details come only at the end and only when the sun is not beaming directly down on the piece, she said.
“We use curry combs for close curve shaping, a range of chisels for more precise details, and even sandpaper to smooth surfaces,” said Runde.
Runde was the team captain for “The Contented Man,” last year’s team Vermont’s piece at the nationals.
“It was a simple figure of an older, portly, bearded gentleman seated on a rock holding an ice cream cone with a dog on his knee,” said Runde. “We figured that not only was this a structurally sound endeavor for our first year at nationals but also a brief nod to, you know, Ben and Jerry’s.”
At this year’s nationals, each team will receive a cylinder shaped block of snow eight feet in diameter and nine feet high on the grounds of Historic Riviera on the lake front in downtown Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. Each team’s snow block will be chosen by a random lottery. Condition of the snow cannot be guaranteed. If snow is not available and snowmaking isn’t possible, an ice-carving competition will be held.
“It’s a gorgeous location to work — right beside the lake,” said Runde. “And the snow sculpting community is just great. They are zany, friendly, incredibly creative, generous, and really just a great bunch to rub elbows with.
Teams will be judged on creativity, technique, and message. The team with the most numbers wins.
Awards include the US National Competition Champions Award (first place), State of Wisconsin Award trophy (second place), City of Lake Geneva Award trophy (third place), Gene Kempfer People’s Choice Award (determined by public vote) trophy, and the Klaus Ebeling OMM Award trophy.
“Our piece this year is still under discussion,” said Runde, “but we’ve got some fun ideas flying around. There’s the possibility of a nine-headed Hydra (from Greek mythology), a giant dragon head, an artful arrangement of seal/sea lions, or a Chimera (also from Greek mythology), among others.”
This article first appeared in the December 23, 2015 edition of the Vermont Standard.