Remember when you were a kid, and traipsing through the snow and shaping it into snowmen or igloos or sofas made you feel like a fantastical wizard?
Even if you missed that kind of experience, it's not too late to soak up some of the magic at the 22nd annual International Snow Sculpture Championships. Already, volunteers have spent days stomping down 3- to 4-foot layers of snow, until they created 23 packed snow blocks measuring 10x10x12 feet and weighing 20 tons.
Tuesday, 15 of the best international snow sculpting teams will begin transforming the blocks into amazing fine art pieces in an event cofounder Rob Neyland terms both sport and passion.
"A lot of these teams bring their charismatic color to the event," Neyland said. "It's important, because at the end of the day, snow sculpting is a performing art; it is a living art form that is performed on the public stage. It is a cross between art and theater. The energy they bring in manifesting their own country's spirit is a big part of the process."
And it's a process the public has the privilege to take in throughout the week, as people wander among the blocks, watching sculptors use only hand tools - some of which they've literally invented - to uncover the beauty frozen within the blocks.
"The truly wondrous thing to behold is the living process of the sculpture, which very few people experience," Neyland said. And he's right: Most people view sculptures after they're finished; they don't sit onsite as an artist welds metal or chips away wood or bronze. "Rarely do you get the opportunity to see monumental sculpture being done."
This year particularly stands out in the minds' of organizers because it brings together more teams who have won medals in snow sculpting than any other year, including Team China and Team Canada-Yukon, said Rachel Zerowin, spokesperson for Breckenridge Resort Chamber.
Neyland calls it the "distilled cream of the cream of the cream."
In selecting 15 of the 32 entrants this year, judges evaluated the quality of design, looking for striking, dramatic and "doable" ideas (with snow, without any supporting materials); a team's pedigree (how many snow sculpting competitions it has attended and how it placed); and the perceived likelihood that members would show up, because in the past, teams from certain countries have told officials two days before the competition they couldn't get visas or plane tickets, Neyland said.
In addition to selecting teams with great track records, Breck officials also strive to bring in new artists.
This year, judges saw more entries than usual, said Vanessa Agee, Riverwalk and events manager. She attributes the high number to Breckenridge's reputation and call-outs. In the past 22 years, Breck's competition has become one of the premiere international snow sculpting competitions, moving from "who's that? to being one of the notches that you need on your belt," Neyland said, adding that there are approximately 10 first-rate international competitions: about three in Canada, four in Europe, one in Japan, one in China and one in Breckenridge.
In addition to bringing in fresh teams internationally, locally, Neyland and crew have been cultivating snow artists through the Snowflake Challenge, which began in 2008. Team Breckenridge captain Keith Martin came directly through the Snowflake Challenge; after winning it two years in a row, Neyland brought him on board; this will be Martin's second year with Team Breckenridge, which also includes veteran Tom Day, previous Snowflake Challenge competitor Tim West, and Margo Jerkovitz and Betty Richter.
Other United States teams include Team Alaska and Team Wisconsin. Two teams cross boarders. One is Team Greece/USA - Idaho, and the other is Team Australia/USA. Australian Noah Davis started the latter, but he lives in Carbondale, so last year, most of his team members, except his American wife, came from Australia. This year, a few of his mates couldn't make the overseas trip, so Agee recommended a sculptor, and Davis invited another Carbondale buddy to join, resulting in a team mix of three Australians and two Americans.
Three teams hail from Canada (Ontario, Quebec and Yukon), and other international teams are traveling from: Catalonia, (Spain), China, Finland, Germany, Baltic (Latvia-Estonia), Mexico and Switzerland.
In 2008, the championship began providing a 59 percent travel stipend, making it easier for artists to attend. Breckenridge also has gained a solid reputation as a cushy place to compete, due to all the benefits competitors receive.
"We really roll out the welcome mat as a community," Agee said, pointing out that it's not just a town and Breckenridge Resort Chamber event.
Restaurant owners provide free meals for team members on Wednesday night, one sponsor provides massages, and Breckenridge Ski Resort gives lift tickets, and, of course, makes the snow, which is a very big deal: Clean, machine-made, foot-packed snow provides the best medium in which to sculpt. Agee said some competitions scoop their snow from parking lots, which literally results in blocks with cigarette butts, dog waste and other debris.
"We notice the caliber of teams and designs and quality of sculpting has really gone up (every year)," Agee said.
Last year, organizers made the event more comfortable for viewers, as well, by adding leather sofas in the Riverwalk Center and LED lighting. This year, Cadillac has joined Budweiser as a main sponsor; Budweiser is the title sponsor, while Cadillac is the presenting sponsor. The extra support allowed staff to purchase even more leather sofas and install electricity in the Riverwalk parking lot, eliminating the need for loud, messy diesel towers. They also added LED uplighting, which creates more shadows, and thus depth, than just downlighting can.
"In my mind, this is certainly a great art festival for all to enjoy, and it's a very accessible art form," Agee said, explaining that not everybody is going to be able to go to an art museum and appreciate the pieces, but snow sculptures are fun and easy to enjoy.
Budweiser and Cadillac both have custom, full-size snow sculptures in the Blue River Plaza (and one at Beaver Run). Neyland will be one of the artists creating the gateway sculpture, as he was last year - a role he enjoys because he's not tied to competition rules that limit the number of participants, so he can let friends help sculpt.
Meanwhile, the team he helped form - Breckenridge - from a passion of playing with snow back in the late 1960s and early 1970s to pay homage to Ullr, will create a technically challenging piece, mainly due to the need for suspension, as it builds a carousel.