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Sculpting Snow In Downtown Aspen

Jan 12, 2015

Artist Thomas Barlow sculpts a big block of snow in downtown Aspen as part of the annual Winterskol celebration.
Credit Marci Krivonen

During this year’s Winterskol celebration in Aspen, two large snow sculptures towered above passersby on the Mill Street Mall. Artist Thomas Barlow created the works. The Basalt-based artist has created more than two dozen snow sculptures at festivals and events across the globe. Aspen Public Radio's Marci Krivonen caught up with him mid-sculpt on Friday afternoon.

Artist Thomas Barlow thoughtfully slices his chainsaw through a large block of snow. The snow sprays on Barlow’s black jacket and sunglasses.

"There's a couple things you have to be okay with as a snow sculpture artist: being out in the cold, wet snow and you do get sprayed quite often. You want to know which way the wind’s blowing," Barlow says.

The two sculptures he’s working on today feature a skier dropping through a forest and a ballet dancer surrounded by other elements.

One of Barlow's sculptures features a skier moving down through a forest. It's about 14 feet tall.
Credit Marci Krivonen

"This one is more about Aspen, I guess. It features wine, grapes, trees and dance."

His sculptures start with a sketch on paper. Then Barlow spray paints where he wants to make his first cuts. He uses a chainsaw and a special Japanese ice saw. The sculpture starts as an 8-foot-by-8-foot snowy square and eventually becomes a three-dimensional, detailed work.

Krivonen: "How long will it take you to get them done?"

Barlow: "I only have until tomorrow. Today is the big day. I came out early, probably 7:30, and restarted on the skier piece. I just wanted to get it to a point where it’s recognizable, where I can see it."

On the busy sidewalks surrounding the sculptures, people pause to predict the final product.

"I think it’s going to be a piece of modern art, something abstract," says one visitor.

Another passer-by says, "The one over there looks a lot like the old Winternational logo with the skier going down and all the vertical lines."

Barlow uses a chainsaw and a Japanese ice saw to shape the snow sculpture.
Credit Marci Krivonen

Victor and Katrina Vo stop to snap a photo. The couple is from Sidney, Australia.

"We have seen sand sculptures there, but we haven’t seen a snow sculpture. It will be interesting to see what the final sculpture will be."

Barlow’s sculptures are part of an 18-year-old tradition. The “snowsculpt” portion of Aspen’s Winterskol celebration began in the 1990s. Katherine Bell is with Anderson Ranch Arts Center, an organizer of “snowsculpt.”

"It really evolved into quite a centerpiece of Winterskol. At the height of its popularity, I think there was something like 15 to 20 sculptures lining the pedestrian mall," she says.

In the past, teams competed for cash prizes. This year a lack of interest and funding for the prizes canceled the competition. Bell says participation began to dwindle last winter.

"Last year we gave it our all with our marketing. I was pounding the pavement all around town. Eighteen years is a long time for one event and it’s time to reevaluate and, maybe we can come up with something even better for next season."

Barlow has 48 hours to complete both sculptures. His works replace a team competition. The organizers of "Snowsculpt" canceled the competition because of a lack of interest.
Credit Marci Krivonen

For now, artist Thomas Barlow will carry on the custom. His works this year are commissioned by the Aspen Chamber. He says he knows snow sculpture isn’t a typical work of art.

"One common question I get is, 'How can you put so much time and effort into something that’s not permanent?' And the answer is, it’s meant to be appreciated now and it is a temporary medium."

Barlow picks up his chainsaw and goes to work. He’s got until tomorrow to complete the finishing touches.