Snow Sculpture Event Draws Carving Artists To Annual Winterfest

The 28th Annual Breckenridge International Snow Sculpture Championships, Jan. 22-26, attracts sculptors from various countries to turn 25-ton blocks of snow into masterpieces like swans, decorative arches, sugar skulls and whatever else their imaginations can conjure.

“People come from all over the globe to participate in this event,” said Brett Tomczak, a snow sculptor for Team Wisconsin. “It’s the Super Bowl of snow sculpting.”

Guests are invited to Breckenridge as early as January 16 to watch work crews build the 12-foot tall blocks of snow sculptors will use. The prep week is necessary not only to construct the massive blocks, but also allow time for the snow to compact and settle.

Sculpting begins at 11 a.m., Monday, Jan. 22 and ends Friday, Jan. 26, 10 a.m. Show producers say Thursday, Jan. 25 is one of the best times to visit because artists are preparing to stay up all night to do detail work. The awards ceremony is Jan. 26 at 2 p.m.

There’s also a viewing week from Jan. 25-29. This offers guests a time to gaze at the sculptures and see them lit up during the night.

A recap of 2017’s International Snow Sculpture Championship:

  • Team China took gold in last year’s competition with their piece depicting a swimming mermaid.
  • Team Sweden earned Silver with “4 (Ever) Wheels Reflection.” A sculpture showcased two cars tied together, a commentary of both freedom and dependency.
  • Team Mongolia-Erdene took Bronze with “We are One Family,” a piece reflecting the idea of animals coexisting with humans and nature.
  • The Artists’ Choice was tie between Mongolia-Erdene and Mongolia-Tserendash.

Sensible Driver interviewed Brett Tomczak, a snow sculptor with more than two decades of experience. Tomczak is in his fifth year representing Team Wisconsin. In this lightly edited interview, Tomczak talks about the challenges, perks and camaraderie involved in the annual competition.

Q: How long have you been snow sculpting?

A: “I’ve been doing this for 23 years. It’s something you can’t practice often, but it’s something to do to pass the long Wisconsin winters.”

Q: What competitions have you participated in?

A: “I’ve competed in Wisconsin events for 20-plus years. U.S. national competition is in Wisconsin and I’ve competed in Chicago. But Breckenridge is the largest as far as international scope. I haven’t traveled internationally to compete, but the Breckenridge competition draws people from all over the world.”

Q: What are some snow sculptures you’ve done in years past?

A: “The best one we ever did was a Dia De Los Muertos Sugar Skull we did at Breckenridge. It was a skull with a rose on the side of the head and drapery that acted as hair. The detail of the skull is something I’m really proud of. The skull was hollow inside and we actually built a fire inside of it one night. That’s one of the unadvertised things Breckenridge does, they have a sculptor's’ party and some of the sculptures have fires built inside them. We were lucky enough to have ours chosen.”

Q: What kind of tools do you use?

A: “The only rules at Breckenridge is no power tools and no heat allowed. Any hand tool is fair game. We’ve used garden tools and kitchen tools, if we all had was a six-prong ice pick we could get to it. The physical size of that ice pick is small, but you can do a lot with it—it chews through snow like nobody’s business. You can pop out little pieces at a time or big pieces at a time.

But we’ll typically start with a roofing shovel—a shovel used for taking shingles off a roof—to take off big chunks.

I love seeing what other people use. There are some custom tools and it’s interesting to see the other techniques and approaches.”

Q: How much math goes into the design and sculpting?

A: “It depends, we don’t use a lot of math. We do a lot of organic shapes and figuring it out on the fly. But I had a mind-blowing experience at Breckenridge where a team had a half-hour conversation about nothing but numbers. One person was on the ground, one was on top and one was shouting coordinates. No words were said that were not numbers for half an hour. I was thinking ‘We’re really out of our league here.’”

Q: Are there any size restrictions for the finished product?

A: “Everyone starts with a block of snow that’s 10 feet wide, 10 feet long and 12 feet high. But you can build as tall that you want. Teams will cut off the side and stack up top. Last year we did a paper crane with wings that were 8 feet long. And there isn’t any steel or structural support holding the wings up. It’s just the snow. When it stays frigid you can really do stuff that defies gravity.”

Q: What’s the ideal weather for competition?

A: “Ideally? Frigid cold, with no snow no sun. Under those conditions can take amazing structural chances. But we’ve competed under various conditions. One year in Chicago it was 63 degrees. And that causes problems because you’re dealing with snow melt. We’ve also worked all day and had snowstorms come during the night and cover up our detail work. In those cases you can usually brush the snow away, but you’re still losing some of that detail work in the process.

The biggest challenge is when the snow melts and refreezes and you’re dealing with chunks of ice. Even if it’s cold, the sun does crazy things to the surface. Want to keep as much of it in the shade as possible. Breckenridge is good about providing us with awnings so we can protect our work.”

Q: What’s it like participating in an international competition?

A: “The camaraderie is amazing. It’s a friendly competition and we have all these different cultures coming together. Last year we were sandwiched between team Mexico and team Mongolia. You make connections with people because they are doing the same thing you are—even if you don’t speak the same language. When we did the sugar skull one of the Mongolian team members came over to us and made diving motion, and we could tell he wanted to go inside. So we took a photo of him in the skull. Then with the miracle of social media, you know what others are up to after the competition. You get to see art people make in their day job and you get to keep up with them. But what really stands out is how friendly all the teams are. You could ask any team if we could borrow a tool and they would share it.”