Artists have waited two years to compete at the annual International Snow Sculpture Championships in Breckenridge. The event’s return came this week with nine teams sculpting giant blocks of snow since Monday, Jan. 24, using only hand tools like saws and peelers to create ephemeral pieces.
As the name implies, people travel from around the world to take part. This year, there are teams from Germany, Ecuador, Mexico and New York in addition to three from Wisconsin and two from Colorado — including a home team from Breckenridge. Team Breckenridge’s Keith Martin is also overseeing a noncompetition, sponsored block sculptured in honor of local historic figure Barney Ford, whose 200th birthday was in January.
The sport attracts carvers of all ages. Summit High School students Eli Krawczuk-Cochrane and Giancarlo Martinez received second place at the Colorado Snow Sculpting Championship earlier this month.
There are no cash prizes for the International Snow Sculpture Championships. Instead, the top three teams each receive a medallion, trophy and ribbon. Nevertheless, it’s been a long wait for Team Mexico to see if they can win gold for the third year in a row.
“Hopefully, when we retire from this, people will have a hard time winning three in a row,” team member Jessie Armand said about raising the bar for the team from two consecutive wins to three. Team Canada has been the only to win three in a row from 2002 to 2004.
The group, which regularly comprises Armand and Carlos Miguel Ramirez Pereyra, won in 2020 for the statue Greed and in 2019 for Cenote Guardian. Joining them this year is Israel Magaña Rodriguez and Christopher Power.
While Ramirez is technically the team captain this year, he and Armand don’t like to think in hierarchical terms. Rather, they see it as a transcontinental partnership, with Armand from Canada and Ramirez from Mexico.
“We have such a good chemistry,” Armand said. “… He’s my shadow, and I’m his shadow.”
What country the team represents switches from competition to competition. For instance, at last week’s World Snow Sculpting Championship in Minnesota, the first-place pair represented Canada as Team Jetset, a reference to Armand’s professional artist handle.
Armand has been a full-time artist for 18 years, specializing in murals, tattoos and paintings. Though he mainly works in two dimensions, he said his education and experience with forced perspective helps him in three-dimensional mediums.
“Whether it’s a tree, a snow block, a piece of rock, clay, paper — whatever — everything is possible, and it’s just applying good techniques to do it,” Armand said.
He first got involved with snow sculpting when a friend asked him to lend a hand at the Quebec Winter Carnival in 2006. The atmosphere enticed him to come back two years later to build on his own team, and then he went on to sculpt in Montreal.
He did it to hone his art, but most of all, Armand fell in love with the experience of meeting people. He enjoys the competitions because he can relax, leave the stress of work behind and create new memories.
“Snow sculpting is pretty much the only thing I don’t get paid for,” Armand said. “This is why I love it so much. We’re here for other reasons than money.”
Like Armand, Ramirez got introduced to the sport when a friend asked for help. An architect and wedding planner by trade, a teacher of his from architecture school invited Ramirez to Breckenridge in 2008. Ramirez joked that it was reminiscent of the Jamaican bobsled team that was the focus of the film “Cool Runnings.”
“I had never been in the snow before coming to Breckenridge,” Ramirez said. “It was my first time in the snow and in the snow sculptures. After that, it became a passion for me.”
Meeting new people is what kept Ramirez coming back, as well.
“It’s amazing the camaraderie you can find in between these events,” Ramirez said. “You make friends forever.”
Armand and Ramirez first competed against each other at a number of events. About six or seven years ago in Quebec, Armand split off from his team and Ramirez invited him aboard. The pair became fast friends from that moment on, winning award after award in their matching uniforms.
They like to push the limits with the sculptures, making certain parts of the pieces as dangerously thin as possible without it falling apart. In Minnesota, they made a scene titled YeeHaa that featured a girl hanging off of her brother on a rocking horse. Ramirez was convinced it was going to break.
The team is going safer this year in Breckenridge. Called King of Thrones, their piece depicts a young boy dressed as a king — complete with a broom as a scepter — sitting on a toilet. The humorous work started just as a title bounced around via Zoom before coming up with the image. Because the championship and similar snow sculpture competitions are family-friendly affairs, Armand said they like to stick with simple, concrete concepts. They don’t want something super abstract that needs to be explained in an artist statement, rather they go for identifiable pieces that elicit emotion.
Helping Team Mexico accomplish those goals are custom shovels with teeth that they use to quickly break down the giant block of snow, often on the first day. From there, Armand and Ramirez have the time to fine tune the details. They finish the sculpture with 180-grit sandpaper to get the texture just right.
The public can see King of Thrones for themselves — among other sculptures — starting Friday, Jan. 28. In light of the coronavirus pandemic, the event will have one-way paths and free reservations are required for certain times Saturday, Jan. 29. People can reserve a viewing time slot at 10 a.m., noon or 2 p.m. online at GoBreck.com/ISSC. Reservations are not needed outside of those peak times.
Sculptures will be illuminated nightly, and guests can also vote for their favorite online at GoBreck.com/vote. Voting closes at 2 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 29.
Awards for first, second and third — as well as people’s choice and artists’ choice — will be presented at the awards ceremony at 6 p.m. Friday inside the Riverwalk Center. Doors for the free ceremony open at 5:30 p.m. All attendees will be required to show proof of vaccination upon entry.