When Keith Martin moved to Breckenridge in 2001, his balcony looked right out onto the parking lot where the snow sculptures go up every winter during the International Snow Sculpture Championships.
“I told my wife — we were sitting right there on the patio, overlooking the parking lot — and I said, ‘I’m going to do that someday,’” Martin said.
Not only has he kept his word, but Martin is also the captain of Team Breck, the local snow-sculpting team whose founders started the championships 24 years ago.
Drawn to the artistry of snow and ice
Martin’s love affair with snow and ice sculpting started even before he arrived in Summit County. He can recall exactly the moment when he knew he wanted to be a sculptor — while attending culinary school in Pennsylvania, he was given a block of ice to carve as a table decoration. Having been drawn to the culinary field by its artistic opportunities, the icy challenge intrigued him and he was hooked.
“I knew it right then,” he said.
Martin spent years working for Hearthstone Catering, improving his artistic and presentation skills and keeping an eye out for ways to follow the passion that was calling to him.
In 2006, he got his big chance. As it turned out, the team from Germany that year had only two people, and they needed a third to have any hope at competing. A colleague connected them with Martin, and they got started.
“The dynamics just clicked,” Martin said of working with his first teammates, a couple that is now married.
It turned out that it was the first snow sculpture for them, as well, so everyone started out on equal footing, working together and finding a rhythm with one another.
“None of us had ever sculpted snow before, and we won a bronze medal,” Martin said of the result. “What a great accomplishment!”
Making the team
Working with the Germans jumpstarted Martin’s snow-sculpting career. Whenever he could in his work, he’d do an ice carving or anything snow or ice related.
Not long after his debut with the German team, the town revived the Breckenridge Snowflake Challenge, a snow-sculpting competition for amateurs. Ecstatic, Martin teamed up with a friend to enter the competition. They shoveled out most of a stranger’s driveway for snow and got to work. They won.
The next year, as winner, Martin was able to make his sculpture in the middle of downtown and won again. It was then that he was approached by Rob Neyland, one of the Team Breck founders, and asked if he’d be interested in joining the team.
“Thanks to them for having that competition because I’d never have been able to get my name out there,” Martin said.
Working with Team Breck was Martin’s dream and allowed him to join in on not only the championship in Breckenridge but competitions all over the world.
“It opened the door of why I loved it,” he said. “It gives me a great way to travel and see different parts of the world. I had never been to Japan and would never have had a reason to go there.”
Now, Martin’s winters are nearly entirely taken up by snow and ice sculpting. He does a couple of competitions each year and spends the rest of his time doing sculpting for events, such as the ice podium for an ice-climbing event in Ouray.
In the summer, he restores vintage trailers and campers, an act that also fulfills his artistic proclivities.
The artistic process
Creating a snow sculpture, especially for an international competition, is a team effort.
“Dynamics of the team really make a big difference,” Martin said. “I think we all respect each other’s talents.”
Being able to explain his artistic vision for the sculpture is a key component, he added. In a way, giving directions for the sculpture is like giving directions as a chef, he said.
“You have to make the people in the kitchen envision what the thing’s going to look like out on that banquet table,” he said.
And, in the end, minor details “really make the difference between the gold and the bronze.”
Martin’s favorite part of the process is the beginning, before any snow is packed or tools readied.
“Coming up with the ideas might be the most fun, and at the same time, it is the most challenging,” he said.
The design he chooses not only has to evoke the right emotions from the viewer but also stand up against designs from some of the best snow sculptors from around the world. Breckenridge also provides snow of a very high quality, which allows sculptors to become more creative and daring with their designs. The most successful sculptures are both artistic and challenging in an engineering aspect.
“You want people to actually get into it, so they’re feeling what you’re trying to put into that sculpture,” Martin said. “In our sculpture there’s emotion. We want people to see that and feel that and relate with it to work with the story that we’re portraying.”
Martin’s favorite sculpture with Team Breck was the underwater sculpture he and the team carved for the Breckenridge competition in 2011. It won them a bronze medal.
“It was something different that no one else had come up with before,” he said. It was also the first time competitors could use colored LED lights.
“It gave it that underwater feel and that look,” Martin said. “People walked up to it and felt like they all of a sudden stepped out of where they were standing and got into this underwater cave. There were so many aspects of it that I really, really loved.”
Martin hopes to do more with his sculpting in the future, whether it be for competitions or as part of winter sporting events such as the X Games or the Olympics.
He also expressed interest in working with some of the nearby parks to create interactive designs for people to ski and ride over.
“I’ve got a gazillion ideas for designs in my head,” he said.
After the international championships in Breckenridge, Martin will be heading to Iceland with Neyland to create a collaborative sculpture in an art museum in Rekjavik with the Iceland national team.
Whether he’s sculpting at home or abroad, Martin is happy.
“I think it’s awesome to get out there and tell people what we’re doing and inspire other people,” he said.
When spectators tell them that he has the coolest job ever, he responds that it’s not a job.
“This is truly just love.”