Winter 2015 Arts: Snow sculpting

On Mother Nature’s canvas

By Norah Machia

Titled "Family Ties," this elephant sculpture by Jerry Merrill was completed in Quebec in 2007. "The rear of the mom and baby holding tails is one of my favorites," Mr. Merrill said.

Titled “Family Ties,” this elephant sculpture by Jerry Merrill was completed in Quebec in 2007. “The rear of the mom and baby holding tails is one of my favorites,” Mr. Merrill said.

Snow sculptors have traveled the world to carve art

Klaus Ebeling and Jerry Merrill just can’t seem to slow down when it comes to the art of snow sculpting.

For more than 30 years, they have traveled the world participating in snow-sculpting exhibitions and competitions in Switzerland, Norway, Sweden, France, China, Japan, Italy, France and Canada, as well as across the United States.

They have also done some ice sculpting along the way. Now the two men continue to share their expertise with others, including those a little closer to home.

Mr. Ebeling, 84, Adams Center, a retired art professor at Jefferson Community College, was instrumental in helping to establish the Snowtown USA winter festival that ran during the 1980s and 1990s in Watertown.

He helped to reintroduce snow sculpture into the Snowtown USA celebration after it was revived last year, and is a supporter of this year’s event as well.

“I have referred to it as the rebirth of Snowtown,” he said.

Mr. Ebeling, who has written a snow-sculpting manual that has been read by many people in the field, including competition judges and organizers, as well as other sculptors, is sharing his expertise with the local event organizers.

“He was the catalyst for reintroducing last year’s snow sculptures into Snowtown USA,” said Michael C. Miller, a board member of the North Country Arts Council, which is producing the snow-sculpting event this year.

“Klaus is filled with energy and experience — a most affable fellow,” he said.

Mr. Miller called the snow-sculpting book written by Mr. Ebeling “brilliant.”

“Art is everywhere … even using the natural elements of winter in the north country,” Mr. Miller added. “That’s what we’re trying to support through the Snowtown snow sculptures.”

While “some people use marble or brass or wood as their choice of materials for sculpting, these artists use packed snow and, in the case of Snowtown, no power tools,” he added.

Mr. Ebeling said one way he encouraged the “rebirth” of snow sculpting in Watertown was through his regular columns written for the former Jefferson County Journal, now the South Jeff Journal. His columns, titled “Good News is Good Medicine,” are meant to be both “instructional and inspirational,” he said.

Some examples from his recent columns:

“Moist snow, in weather near the freezing point, sticks when formed by hand into a snowball or by rolling that ball through more virgin snow into that big ball of which traditional snowmen are made. Very cold powder snow does not stick. Only skiers love that,” he wrote.

“Sculptors have to remedy that shortcoming. Add some water and make slush in a bucket rather than on the ground. Use watertight and insulated gloves to pack the slush. The more water slush contains, the darker the snow will look when it refreezes. Water will drain out of slush, like rain out of a cloud when there is too much of it. In short, be stingy with water,” Mr. Klaus stated.

He also offers encouragement, such as this statement: “The road to expertise in snow sculpting, like in most other endeavors, is paved with practice, opportunity, exposure to tools and techniques.”

Klaus Ebeling, Adams Center, holds onto a shark ice sculpting tool. In front are models from various international snow-sculpting events he has completed in throughout the years. He is an internationally acclaimed snow sculptor  who has helped to revive the craft at Watertown's Snowtown USA festival. Photo by Amanda Morrison, NNY Living.

Klaus Ebeling, Adams Center, holds onto a shark ice sculpting tool. In front are models from various international snow-sculpting events he has completed in throughout the years. He is an internationally acclaimed snow sculptor who has helped to revive the craft at Watertown’s Snowtown USA festival. Photo by Amanda Morrison, NNY Living.

For the majority of the years that he spent snow sculpting, Mr. Ebeling worked with fellow artist Jerry S. Merrill, 72, Rodman. In addition to snow sculpting, Mr. Merrill has done many oil paintings and pen-and-ink drawings of landscapes, people and animals.

“Usually I do some ink drawings of whatever I may be carving,” he said, noting that Mr. Ebeling typically did dimensional drawings in advance as well.

For example, when Mr. Merrill created a sculpture of elephants in a Quebec competition, he first completed a drawing to “get a feel for the animal and to learn more about what we should do in order on the snow block,” he said.

“The rear of mom and baby holding tails is one of my favorites,” Mr. Merrill added.

Mr. Merrill, who has taken up temporary residence in Florida during the winter, will return north to create snow sculptures this month at the Lake George Snow Festival. He has been on the phone with organizers taking care of some advance planning.

“There needs to be a wooden frame, 8-by-8 cube, packed with man-made snow” set up in advance of the sculpting process, he explained.

Organizers of that event offered to pay Mr. Merrill’s airfare back to New York so he could participate in the festival.

Snow-sculpting event organizers have offered different incentives over the years for the two men, said Mr. Merrill, who operated his own insurance agency in Rodman.

“Most of the events get some monumental art for the cost of food and lodging, and usually something special, such as free skiing for a day, dog sled rides, a trip to some cultural building,” he said.

“Lately, some small stipend may also be given.”

The two men met when Mr. Ebeling was teaching high school art at the former Adams Center Central School, now South Jefferson Central School District, and Mr. Merrill was a student at the high school. Years later, they joined forces with Mr. Ebeling providing the architectural design skills along with abstract, and Mr. Merrill providing the naturalistic realism and detail, to create their works of art in the snow.

“He comes up with a million different ideas,” said Mr. Merrill. “He has a lot of different plans in his head. Klaus is a genius.”

Their sculptures have included a variety of designs, including pyramids, planets, dancers, to name a few. A snow sculpture of four elephants that measured 10-by-10-by-14 feet earned them first prize at a 1990 international competition in Finland.

“Our first national competition in 1987 won us a free trip to Valloire, France,” Mr. Merrill said. “There we won first place with a polar bear story design.”

Mr. Ebeling won a bronze medal in the 1992 Olympic Ice-Carving Competition in France with a 9-foot sculpture titled “Alpine Crystal.” after having just started that type of sculpture a year prior to the competition.

Mr. Merrill also competed in that event’s snow-sculpting competition with Paul Aubin of Carthage. The three men formed the Team USA in Olympic Snow Sculpting event. Mr. Merrill had been captain of the reigning New York snow sculpting championship team at that time.

In 1995, Mr. Merrill and Mr. Ebeling tied for first place in the Snowtown USA New York State Snow Sculpting Competition. Mr. Merrill has recently traveled to Colorado and Quebec for snow-sculpting events as well.

Other memories Mr. Merrill shared of their travels in the snow-sculpting world include being guests at a four-star hotel in Switzerland that charged $5,000 for a week’s stay, and observing the members of the military in China building nearly 40 huge snow sculptures along a street.

“China’s ice was way too hard for our tools, but a kind Korean loaned us a razor-sharp chisel that worked fine,” he said.

He also recalled how “a Russian military officer in full uniform with shoulder pads came to our table and gave me a toast. The interpreter explained he was thanking me for the ink drawings that Klaus had given him.”

Mr. Ebeling summed up the perks of snow sculpting in writing a column to support the Snowtown USA revival in Watertown:

“Become an international snow sculptor. Earn fabulous vacations with free skiing in the Rocky Mountains or the Alps, visiting for a week Scandinavia, Greenland, Quebec, Japan or China for the price of the airfare, with hotel, meals and local transportation free, in exchange for your snow sculpture from a provided 10-foot cube of snow. When you represent your region or country you can probably also find a sponsor for your airfare.”

Award-winning snow carvers and longtime friends Jerry S. Merrill, right, Kris Benner, both of Rodman, and Clifford Gilbert, Redfield, completed this snow sculpture at the corner of Washington and Clinton Streets in Watertown during the 2014 Snowtown USA festival. At the bottom, they carved "Marry Me Steve" to help a friend propose to her boyfriend. Photo by Justin Sorensen, NNY Living.

Award-winning snow carvers and longtime friends Jerry S. Merrill, right, Kris Benner, both of Rodman, and Clifford Gilbert, Redfield, completed this snow sculpture at the corner of Washington and Clinton Streets in Watertown during the 2014 Snowtown USA festival. At the bottom, they carved “Marry Me Steve” to help a friend propose to her boyfriend. Photo by Justin Sorensen, NNY Living.

Norah Machia is a freelance writer who lives in Watertown. She  is a 20-year veteran journalist and former Watertown Daily Times reporter. Contact her at norahmachia@gmail.com.