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Snow Sculptures Take Shape as National Competitors Face Off in Lake Geneva

More than a dozen teams from around the country are gathered in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin for the U.S. National Snow Sculpting Competition. And although the competition has been in the small, tourist town for more than two decades, it actually started in Milwaukee.

"We created the United States National Snow Sculpting Competition 1984, I believe it was, and performed it in the grounds of the Performing Arts Center - it was called at that time - and Pere Marquette Park across the river from there," says Don Berg, one of the founders of the competition and WinterFun Inc., the group that organizes the event. 

Founder Don Berg exploring the roots of the U.S. National Snow Sculpting Competition.
Credit Joy Powers
A block of snow before the sculpting process has begun.

For the National Competition, each team will be given a large cylinder of snow - 9 feet high and 8 feet in diameter. And this isn’t your average, run-of-the-mill street snow. This stuff is pure white, artificial snow, supplied by a local ski hill.

Berg says this designer snow still comes with unique challenges. "When we pack it into the forms that we use and stomp it down, it’s *knock* *knock* *knock.* When it stays cold and if the snow is somewhat wet and it freezes, it is almost like ice."

Weather conditions play a huge role in the competition, but most of the teams seem optimistic about what the week has in store for them. In fact, Wisconsin sculptor Zach Rueter says this weather might be exactly what they need.

"Right now, this is a good day to get all of our sculptures roughed in, and then tonight when it’s going to get so cold and stay cold through Saturday, we’re going to have a chance for everybody to get in a lot of the detail in that they dream of getting in. So it’s going to be perfect conditions for kind of doing, doing our best work," he says.

Wisconsin sculptors Zach Rueter, Ben Turski, and team captain Gina Diliberti, explaining the process of creating a snow sculpture.

Rueter is part of the Polka Pickles team, who are based in the Milwaukee area. The group received second place last year, but as the first place team didn’t return, the Polka Pickles have been heralded as the defending champions of the U.S. National Competition.

The team is made up of Rueter, Ben Turski, and team captain Gina Diliberti, who has been sculpting snow for more than a decade.

She says, "I just love the event and the whole body experience that snow carving is, because you’ve got that interaction with the public, you’ve got the physical challenges, and then the venue of showing art to a community that’s relevant to the time and place and space."

Credit Joy Powers
Team Illinois in the foreground and the Polka Pickles team, each beginning the sculpting process.

Snow sculpting is considered a kind of temporal art. Illinois sculptor George Harnish says that impermanence is part of the allure of snow sculpting.

"Where else can you sculpt such a monumental piece in such a small amount of time, using simple tools, only three people, and have tens and hundreds of thousands of people enjoy that piece or art?"

"Where else can you sculpt such a monumental piece in such a small amount of time, using simple tools, only three people, and have tens and hundreds of thousands of people enjoy that piece or art? I mean, that’s really quite special," he says. 

Harnish is on the Illinois team and he’s been sculpting competitively for 25 years. Together, his team has around 60 years of experience - so it may not be surprising that their piece is pretty ambitious. It features a man and a woman arching back into the form of a heart, and it was designed by team member, Fran Volz.

Volz explains, "It’s called 2 Souls 1 Heart, somewhat technical because the arms are suspended out - straight out - and the good thing is we have cold weather coming up by the end of the week and so the arms should hold up. Otherwise, we may have to do a little modifying to make sure the arms stay up, but I think we’ll be okay."

Credit Courtesy of WinterFun Inc.
The mock-up of "Two Souls, One Heart."

The sculptures feature a variety of subjects with varying levels of difficulty. The steampunk team from Minnesota - known as the House of Thune - is taking a slightly different approach with its sculpture. Titled Peep, this piece pokes fun at President Donald Trump, whose characteristic hair has been set atop a twisted face resembling the Twitter logo.

Dusty Thune is the team captain and he’s joined by his sister Kelly Thune and fellow sculptor, David Aichinger.

"Well we’re roughing out the form right now, making sure that we have the hairline and the giant, protruding lips, just right to say 'UGE' and 'GINA.' So that should be just about good. And we have a nice little missile taking form in the back with a little Kim on it - we’ve got to make sure that’s in the right position. And, you know, we’re building a wall right now. A very, a wonderful wall, the best wall," says Dusty Thune.

"Huge, best wall in world," Aichinger adds. 

Credit Joy Powers
Dusty Thune from the Minnesota team called House of Thune.

Lake Geneva is located in the heart of Wisconsin's First Congressional District, represented by Republican Paul Ryan. But Dusty Thune says that doesn’t scare him - if anything, it makes the statement all the better.

He says, "I don’t know if it would’ve mattered where we were, but it sure makes it a lot sweeter."

Organizers expect more than 40,000 people will come in for the annual Winter Festival. And while the frigid temperatures might not seem like the best thing for an outside event - this group of sculptors is hoping the weather outside stays frightful.

Joy Powers hosts and produces Lake Effect. She joined WUWM January 2016 as a producer for Lake Effect.