When Michelangelo looked at a massive block of marble, he saw the David waiting within it. When Durangoan Keith Martin looks at a 26-ton block of compacted snow, he sees a family tubing, a woolly mammoth, a 19-foot-tall violin player, or an undersea diver in a cave with an octopus floating overhead.
Martin, whose interest in snow sculpture began while living across the street from the venue of the Breckenridge International Snow Sculpting Competition, is fresh off a gold-medal win in the competition that started it all for him about 12 years ago.
It was his sixth try at the competition, fifth on Team Breckenridge and fourth as team captain. The first year he competed with Team Germany, which won the bronze medal.
“I feel very privileged to sculpt with these people,” Martin said, “and it’s a huge honor that Team Breckenridge thinks enough of me to say they want me as the team leader. Breckenridge is kind of the Olympics of snow sculpting.”
The art form appeals to him in many ways.
“I love playing in snow,” he said. “I like living in a snowy climate. I like that it’s temporary art.”
Martin began with an advantage – he learned ice sculpting in culinary school and had used it while working as a chef for a number of years. But sculpting in snow, as opposed to ice, comes with some unique challenges.
Martin starts with scale clay models of the sculptures he wants to create.
“If it falls down in clay, it won’t hold up in snow,” he said. “And it takes the concept from inside my head and shows the other sculptors the detail. Then it’s connect the dots.”
Because it generally is so warm in La Plata County in the winter, Martin works only in clay here. But he’s learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t, some from more experienced teammates and some from experience.
“There’s a lot of science, a lot of engineering,” he said. “You want a nice snowball feel because that’s what allows us to defy gravity.”
The team begins by carving off big blocks of snow the first day of what generally is a 60- to 65-hour allowed sculpting time in a competition.
“The more open you get the big block, the colder it gets overnight, the easier it is to sculpt the next day,” Martin said. “On the last night, we sculpt all night long, right up to the 10 a.m. stop time.”
A typical Durangoan, Martin’s day jobs include running a handyman business, rehabbing trailers and cooking at a hunting lodge in Idaho for two months a year. His handiness allows him to make many of his own sculpting tools, including chisels and scrapers, which he uses along with saws, and brushes. It’s not unusual for him to give away 10 or more tools to fellow snow sculptors at competitions.
Highlights and hazards
“This has taken me half way around the world,” Martin said. “I went to Sapporo, Japan, in 2007. The competition there is huge, covering about 16 city blocks, literally about the size of Durango. Some of the ice structures there are larger than any buildings we have here.”
Martin will leave this week for Loveland for the state snow-sculpting competition before going to work with Team Yukon in Canada, where he’s looking forward to seeing the northern lights.
“I want to travel, see the world, enjoy the food,” he said.
He almost got to go to Iceland once and is hoping to compete in Switzerland, Germany and Italy some day.
But it’s the Asian teams you have to beat, he said, especially the teams from Mongolia, two of which were at Breckenridge.
“They intimidate me,” he said. “Their level of detail is amazing. We were lucky they like whiskey and were a little tipsy the last night.”
Because he generally gets to participate in only about three competitions a year, it’s hard to get the practice in to achieve that kind of detail, he said.
“I’m getting better as I do it, but I’m still better at fat people, puffy jackets, hairy dogs – those kind of things are easier for me,” Martin said.
And snow is such a fragile medium.
“Sometimes, when you’re a racer, you fall down,” he said. “Sometimes, when you’re a snow sculptor, the snow falls down on you. I’ve had it fall down before judging, as they’re judging and right after judging. One time, a team had the ear of a cat just fall off right in front of the judges. It happens.”
One of his biggest challenges came on a sculpture he did of an underwater cave.
“I slipped off one of the arms of the octopus and broke off one of the arms of the scuba diver,” he said. “While everyone else went into lunch, we managed to mount at least 75 pounds of snow back on so you couldn’t tell.”
Sometimes, something almost magical happens.
“One time, I put a little snowflake on a dog’s nose,” he said, “and it melted some the first couple of days, then lasted two weeks.”
He has hopes of working with major ski resorts or perhaps the X-Games tour, and a gold medal at Breckenridge will go a long way in reaching that goal.
Martin also would love to do more snow sculpting here, but the weather just isn’t conducive, he said.
“We’d have to figure out a way to work it, maybe with a refrigerated building because Mother Nature is not going to play with us,” he said.
One sculpture he did at the Leland House lasted a couple of minutes before it toppled, and some at Durango Mountain Resort stayed standing only a couple of days – although he’s quick to point out they allowed kids to climb on them.
“But kids are the coolest thing about the whole event,” Martin said. “They still have the imagination to see what we’re doing. They walk up and see it long before the adults do.”