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Snow shows: It’s a short trip to see world class snow sculpting

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Story by Nancy A. Herrick

Some artists sit at an easel, painstakingly re-creating what they see in their mind’s eye. Some sidle up to a spinning wheel, turning a clump of clay into a graceful goblet or bowl.

Others get out their saws, chisels, down jackets and fur hats, approach a cube of compacted snow, and get to work. And the best of them do it in our area each winter.

“I would say we have more national and international snow sculpting champions in southeastern Wisconsin than anywhere else in the country, as well as some of the premiere events,” says Don Berg, an artist and snow sculptor. “If you want to see high proficiency in the art, this is the place to be.”

Berg should know. At age 69, this artist and snow sculptor has helped develop events around the world, including the first Olympic snow sculpting competition at Calgary in 1988. Closer to home Berg, of Shorewood, is head of Winter Fun Inc., which helps to organize events in Racine and Lake Geneva.

The Big Chill, which determines the state champion snow sculpting team, will be held Jan. 11-13 in downtown Racine. Formerly part of the Flake Out Fest at the Wisconsin Dells, the competition moved to Racine two years ago, says Devin Sutherland, executive director of the Downtown Racine Corp.

“Thousands of spectators come from all around to see the sculptors work,” Sutherland says. “The snow sculpting is at Monument Square, and we also have ice carving in the adjacent retail district.

The sculptors start working at midday Friday, he explains. “They work late into the night Friday and then carve all day Saturday and Saturday night,” he says. They finish by Sunday noon, when the judging takes place.

“Then the sculptures stay around as long as Mother Nature allows,” Sutherland says.

Why Racine?

“The climate, of course,” he says. “But more than that, our region has a phenomenal population of artists in general and this is a way for them to use their skills in a different medium.”

The winning team goes on to the U.S. National Snow Sculpting Competition Jan. 30-Feb. 3, which is part of Lake Geneva’s Winterfest. Sculpting takes place from Wednesday through noon Saturday at Riviera Park, and the winning team is announced at 3 p.m. Saturday.

“Our event is open to any state championship team from the U.S.,” explains George Hennerley, president of the Lake Geneva Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. “As many as 13 states are represented and we have 15 blocks of snow. So we fill out the balance with past champions.”

Teams from Vermont, Alaska, Minnesota — and even some people from Florida, who primarily work in sand - have competed in the past.

“The sculptors primarily are artists who work in other media, but who like this form of artistic expression, too,” Hennerley says.

One of them is Racine’s Jeff Shawhan, an artist and professor who has a Master of Fine Arts degree in ceramics from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He got involved in snow sculpting more than 10 years ago when some friends of his wife asked him to join their team at the Dells competition.

“It was really cold — minus 5 degrees — but I really enjoyed it,” Shawhan says. “I thought minus 5 was bad, but a few years ago it was minus 18. Even so, it’s very physical and you really work up a sweat. Then you don’t notice the temperature as much.”

Shawhan has gone on to win the Wisconsin championship three times, took third place at the U.S. Nationals in 2009 and that same year won the International Championship in Chicago.

“I love the competition and I love the scale. To do a sculpture of that size in bronze would cost more than $20,000,” he says. “I also love the travel. I have been to Breckenridge, Tahoe — all over.”

Part of the challenge is that snow sculpting is a subtractive art.

“That means that you are taking things away rather than adding on, the way you do with other art forms,” Shawhan explains.

As for tools, snow sculptors often fashion their own and figure out what works best for them through trial and error.

“We use a six-prong ice pick, a horsehair brush for detailing, a linoleum scraper, which has a very sharp blade,” he says. “And in non-competitive sculpting we use chain saws, which is really awesome.”

Shawhan is so into the art, in fact, that he even owns his own snow machine.

If you haven’t seen snow sculpting up close, a visit to the event in Racine, Lake Geneva or the international event in Navy Pier is worth a visit.

You will see a variety of artistic approaches, from angular or abstract to precise representations of fairy tale characters, mythological gods, sea serpents or much more.

“From the first day of the event through the weekend after the event, some 30,000 or 40,000 spectators come to Lake Geneva see what the sculptures are all about,” says Hennerley. “And they’re never disappointed.”


Some of the best snow sculptors from around the nation and world compete at three major events. They are:

The Big Chill

Racine Ice and Snow Festival

When: Jan. 11-13

Where: Monument Square in downtown Racine



U.S. Nationals Snow Sculpting Competition

When: Jan. 30-Feb. 3

Where: Riviera Park in Lake Geneva

Information: or

Snow Days Chicago

When: Jan. 25-27

Where: Navy Pier near the Magnificent Mile in Chicago


Try it yourself

Interested in trying your hand at snow sculpting?

“It’s not difficult to attempt it yourself,” says George Hennerley of the Lake Geneva Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, which each year hosts a national sculpting event.

“Just take a large plastic garbage container and pack it full of snow,” he says. “Then really hammer it down, compacting it as much as possible, and keep filling it.’

If it’s nice and cold outside, let it sit and harden. Then turn it over and empty it out.

Gather your tools. He suggests starting with an ice scraper, three-pronged gardening tool, a bread knife, an ice pick and a hand saw. A softer brush will help with some of the detail work.

“Don’t be embarrassed,” he says. “Most professional snow sculptors use tools they’ve made or modified themselves.”

The start carving away to see what you can come up with.