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World Snow Sculpting: Team ND, Revitalizing Downtowns Via Arts

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From left, Jay Ray, Mike Nelson, Josh Zeis posing with first national championship certificate in 2023
From left, Jay Ray, Mike Nelson, Josh Zeis posing with first national championship certificate in 2023

Meet Team ND's snow sculptors Jay Ray, Mike Nelson, Josh Zeis before the World Championships, and explore downtown revitalization through arts with Emily Kurash Casey.

What does it take to be a national champion snow carver? Team North Dakota Snow Sculptingknows a little something about that. They’re the reigning US champs, about to make their debut on the world stage. They’re heading to Stillwater, MN to represent the USA at the World Snow Sculpting Championships this week. We visit with snow sculptors Jay Ray, Josh Zeis, and Mike Nelson.

In this interview you’ll learn about:

  • Extreme Weather Challenge: The interview takes place in extremely cold conditions, with the host and sculptors braving negative 28-degree weather and 40-mile-an-hour winds. 
  • Sculpting Process and Tools: The discussion about the tools used in snow sculpting, including homemade tools like "pickle forks," and the process of creating large-scale sculptures from a basic drawing or maquette. The unconventional tools and the creative process offer insights into the world of snow sculpting.
  • Competition and Fundraising: Team North Dakota's success in national rankings, their participation in international competitions, the fundraising efforts through GoFundMe for travel expenses, and how a local brewery got in on the action. 

Full Transcript:

Ashley Thornberg

I think you can hear me. I am stepping out of my car on a negative 28 degree day in 40 mile an hour winds because there are some people here who are outside working. They are carving snow.

It's Team North Dakota representing the United States in the art of snow sculpting. And oh wow, it's already really cold and I've only been outside for a little bit and I've got really good gear on. Hello!

Hey, how's it going? All right, I'll talk to Josh who's carving out here on his 40th birthday. Which one's Josh?

Hey, how's it going, Josh?

Josh Zeis

Wonderful. Nice and toasty.

Ashley Thornberg

Nice and toasty. Do you know what temperature it is?

Josh Zeis

Nope.

Ashley Thornberg

Do you want me to tell you?

Josh Zeis

Yes, what is it?

Ashley Thornberg

Wind chill is negative 28.

Josh Zeis

Negative 28? Yeah. My hands are sweaty.

My armpits are sweaty.

Ashley Thornberg

How is that possible? How are you sweating?

Josh Zeis

I guess this is a really good ice fishing jacket.

Ashley Thornberg

What are you doing?

Josh Zeis

We're carving some snow for West Fargo events. We're going to make a series of four giant Sasquatch sculptures. We're going to bring the myth to reality.

Ashley Thornberg

So you are Team North Dakota?

Josh Zeis

We are Team North Dakota snow sculpting.

Ashley Thornberg

Okay, and tell us how you did last year. Where does Team North Dakota rank in the nation?

Josh Zeis

Team North Dakota currently ranks number one in the United States.

Ashley Thornberg

And how many years have you been doing this?

Josh Zeis

I've been sculpting snow since 2010 and my team has been sculpting snow since 2017.

Ashley Thornberg

People are waving. They're honking. I just lost my goggles.

They came off my face and now I can't see or hear. So this is great. All right.

What got you into snow sculpting?

Josh Zeis

North Dakota State University Go Bison sculpture professor David Swenson got us involved with snow sculpting as students in Festival du Voyageur, Winnipeg, Manitoba. So Canada got us into it.

Ashley Thornberg

You know, they do have, there is something to be said about embracing winter. This might be taking it a step a little far. No?

You're good? You're happy?

Josh Zeis

Oh yes, I'm very happy. This is what, this is, this is how I like to get through winter. This is fun.

I get to be outside. I don't like snowmobiling. I don't like ice fishing.

I don't like skiing. I got to do something active. My dogs are too old to go dog sledding.

Ashley Thornberg

So this was, all right, tell me about this season because back in December when you and I were first going to meet up, it was 40 degrees and you were trying to do an event in Bismarck and you ended up, I don't know, either not being able to do it or having to get some sort of special snow made.

Josh Zeis

Oh yeah, we, oh, we did it. We sculpted a giant Santa Claus running in a tank top and some nice little active wear shorts, little short shorts. And we had Huff Hills, there's like a, I think they're like a ski resort near Bismarck.

They made snow. No chem, it's not like a, you don't, you're not introducing chemicals. It's just like making snow with water and cold.

Ashley Thornberg

And so who paid for that?

Josh Zeis

That was a grant through the North Dakota Council of the Arts.

Ashley Thornberg

There's somebody out here taking a photo who doesn't even have a hat on. Why am I yelling? I'm yelling at this woman for not wearing a hat and I meantime have two pairs of gloves on and still can't feel my fingers.

North Dakota Council on the Arts, that's pretty incredible. How do you describe the state of the arts in this area?

Josh Zeis

It's getting better, especially with more public, large-scale public art. This is one of the best ways that us as sculptors who want to do big things can actually do it is with snow because there's low overhead. You don't have to spend $20,000 on a 20,000 pound stone that you need to carve for two years.

We get to work in large scale and it is temporary. It's going to be gone in maybe two months, but it's still fun to work this big.

Ashley Thornberg

Yeah, it's surreal. I'm not sure you know what the word fun means. You are doing a fundraiser, right?

Josh Zeis
Meet Team ND's snow sculptors Jay Ray, Mike Nelson, Josh Zeis before the World Championships, and explore downtown revitalization through arts with Emily Kurash Casey.
We are. We have a GoFundMe set up for our team to cover our travel costs and lost wages from taking time away from our jobs to compete in the international competition where we represent Team USA. And at the end of January, we'll be defending our title in the national competition in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin.

So we've got a GoFundMe set up. If you, if anybody wants to help support us in making this happen, we'd much appreciate that.

Ashley Thornberg

Tell our listeners where to go to support that.

Josh Zeis

Go to GoFundMe, type in Team North Dakota snow sculpting and you should, it should pop up at that point.

Ashley Thornberg

What are these events like?

Josh Zeis

We get pampered pretty, pretty well. We go in, they put us in a nice hotel. They have all this really great food lined up for us at night, but during the day, it's nonstop carving.

There's usually like a heating shack, but for the most part, it's super fun because everybody is there. These, as artists, I don't think any artist wants to see another one fail. So everybody's got this spirit of like sharing information, helping out when they can.

And then at the end of the competition, it's the artists that judge each other on who the winner is. So it's your peers that are, they're evaluating the quality of your work.

Ashley Thornberg

For the sake of the gear, I'm going …I'm going in the warming room…we're looking at the designs. There's a Sasquatch. Before I go back out, there's a picture, kind of looks like a Grinch, kind of looks like the Sasquatch.

One of them is sitting on its haunches above a fish tank. Looks like it's going to be fishing. And then the other Sasquatch is playing with a snowman.

So this is presumably their designs. So now we're going to go find out what Team North Dakota, why they like Sasquatches so much and how you use your muscles in this weather. You want to tell me about your tools?

So you’re Jay Ray, the Jay Ray, right? You're kind of known for your sculpting.

Jay Ray

Well, that's a good thing I guess to be known for.

Ashley Thornberg

Now I have seen your sculptures before in wood. What is the difference between working with wood and working with ice and snow?

Jay Ray

Well, the pure size is an advantage or that's what I love about it. We can do 10 foot pieces. It carves easier than wood.

You can just use a nice little sharp knife or a spoon and it goes in pretty easy unless you hit ice junk.

Ashley Thornberg

Are these your tools?

Jay Ray

Yeah, yeah. We made pretty much everything.

Ashley Thornberg

You have to make these tools?

Jay Ray

Well, you don't have to. We have some things that are like little pruning saws that'll use or a sharpened shovel, but we've got little things like using beard trimmers and sheep shears and you just weld them onto a screwdriver.

Ashley Thornberg

And is this known in the ice and snow sculpting world or did you like make up how to make these tools?

Jay Ray

No, they call them pickle forks using the sheep shears and there's expensive versions where you can spend $200 on a piece, but I can make one for $25 so it's a no-brainer for me.

Ashley Thornberg

Yeah, I'll say so. How did you get into sculpting and carving?

Jay Ray

Well, I've always liked art growing up as a kid and did drawing and sculpture and I really didn't get into the actual this kind of sculpting until 2009 basically. I saw an article in the forum about a chainsaw carver and I said, hey, let's just try that and ever since so.

Ashley Thornberg

What were you doing before that?

Jay Ray

Just working. I remodel houses is my main gig, but I didn't really do much for like a creative outlet.

Ashley Thornberg

But somehow you knew you could look at something and with a chainsaw and then make it look like something else. You don't have an art degree?

Jay Ray

No, I did take a couple years of art classes at St. Cloud State and up here at NDSU, but I never graduated, never came to anything so it was just more for fun.

Ashley Thornberg

Never came to anything except that now that you're a national champion snow and ice carver.

Jay Ray

Well, yeah, I guess it just took 20 years to come to fruition I guess.

Ashley Thornberg

Describe these tools a little bit for us. This it looks like a box of medieval torture devices here.

Jay Ray

Yeah, these spiky little plates are called mending plates. They're used in the construction industry.

Ashley Thornberg

This looks kind of like a meat tenderizer, but with way sharper spikes. It's metal.

Meet Team ND's snow sculptors Jay Ray, Mike Nelson, Josh Zeis before the World Championships, and explore downtown revitalization through arts with Emily Kurash Casey.

Jay Ray

Yep, these plates basically take two pieces of two by four or something and you pound them in and they just kind of mend the pieces together. Rafters are used like this and and they can be they can be flat for big surfaces and then we curve this one around PVC to do our inside curves and so just anything to kind of carve into that snow.

Ashley Thornberg

And are you self-taught in this?

Jay Ray

Yeah, I guess. I mean you just kind of dive in. When I heard about Frostville about five or six years ago, I just signed up and joined and just I only had I used a shovel and maybe a knife and a spoon and that's about all I had the first year.

Ashley Thornberg

A knife and a spoon. How big of a sculpture did you make the first year?

Jay Ray

The first year was we used big blocks like these and I had a polar bear on a slab of ice fishing basically and some seals and salmon swimming underneath.

Ashley Thornberg

That's incredible. And then you teamed up later with Josh and with Mike, right?

Jay Ray

Yep, this is our, it's about our second year now, full second year working together.

Ashley Thornberg

Well, I'm going to pop back over to Josh here because he's actually using some of these tools, taking what looks like an extra long pancake flipper and just making some whittling down here. So is this called, what do you call this, subtractive, reductive, something else?

Josh Zeis

Subtractive sculpture, yeah.

Ashley Thornberg

Okay, meaning you're starting with something and you take away material to make it be something else. You're not adding. That's correct.

Okay, so walk us through the design process because I look at this giant, so there's one over here that's, what is this, 10 by it's six foot by six foot by 10 foot. There we go, okay, and it's just column and it's just solid and then you, presumably you, came and drew on this. One of you came and drew on this and then from there you have to make it look like something and right now it just looks like a cube.

Josh Zeis

Yeah, we put a drawing on there because you have to start with something. We've got a couple of different ways we begin a sculpture. We can either draw it on there or we make a little model that's to scale.

So if we, if we take like a one foot stick, every one inch counts for a foot. So we hold it up to that little maquette and then we walk over to the sculpture with an actual 12 foot stick and then we know where to, where the pieces are. Like if I need to find out where this elbow's overhanging, I can reference the maquette and then I can kind of just see it in the form and then I sculpt to where that is.

So it's a system of measuring.

Ashley Thornberg

Yeah, so do you end up sort of making these in clay first or 3D print or do you just kind of draw it?

Josh Zeis
Meet Team ND's snow sculptors Jay Ray, Mike Nelson, Josh Zeis before the World Championships, and explore downtown revitalization through arts with Emily Kurash Casey.
These ones are just a drawing. They're on a, on a gridded piece of paper. The ones that we're doing, the one that we're doing for internationals, we made a, we made a maquette of it, a highly detailed one out of a product called monster wax.

It's kind of like a clay that never really gets hard. You can always recycle it. You just put it in the microwave and it turns into pudding.

Ashley Thornberg

How would you describe this process to, let's just say someone who lives in, I don't know, the Dominican Republic?

Josh Zeis

Um, if you want to suffer and have fun doing it, then you should try snow sculpting. What you're gonna do is you're gonna spend all day out in the cold and if you don't have snow, then you're gonna have to make your own snow and you're gonna have to be in the cold, making your own snow. So that's another level of fun.

All this, well, most of this snow is, we made it.

Ashley Thornberg

Yeah. Have you ever gotten to work in good conditions?

Josh Zeis

We want it to be cold. If good conditions, what are good conditions to you?

Ashley Thornberg

On a beach.

Josh Zeis

We were invited by a friend of mine to go do a sand sculpture in Catalina Island. So we might.

Ashley Thornberg

And, and, can I come with you to that one? Yeah, I sure do. What are the best conditions for carving?

Josh Zeis

Overcast, no wind, 24 degrees.

Ashley Thornberg

Okay, so we're 40 degrees off from that, but it is overcast. Hey, we got one of those. It's windy though.

Josh Zeis

We got wind. My boogers are freezing. That's the only part of my body that's exposed right now is my nose.

I have to, otherwise my goggles get foggy and then I'm, you know, I need my eyes. I need to see things.

Ashley Thornberg

Yeah. All right. Well, I'm going to talk to Mike now about why Sasquatches and whatever these are.

Josh Zeis

Inside or outside?

Ashley Thornberg

Well, that's up to you.

Mike Nelson

Oh, what's up? I'm fine. I just, I would, I just warmed up.

Yeah.

Ashley Thornberg

Okay. Well, I put my gear on properly and now I'm okay. My gloves were hanging off incorrectly before.

Tell us what you like about this specific facial features or whatever it is that that calls you to creatures that look the way that they do. Go ahead and describe that for our listeners.

Mike Nelson

Well, we've got four different Sasquatch characters here and we want to have them all have their own personality or their own situation. This particular one we're looking at is a combination of surprised and kind of a jump scare kind of.

Ashley Thornberg

Is he surprised that somebody's out here carving him?

Mike Nelson

I think he's very surprised that anybody's out here. This is his home base. We're just visiting.

Ashley Thornberg

Okay. Why Sasquatches?

Mike Nelson

The organizers came up with the concept. We came up with the designs. They came up with the concept.

Ashley Thornberg

And the organizers being the Frostival people?

Mike Nelson

West Fargo events.

Ashley Thornberg

Okay.

Mike Nelson

So this falls under the overarching Frostival umbrella but West Fargo events are the orchestrators of the event.

Ashley Thornberg

Okay. So this is obviously a very local event but you've represented North Dakota and you're about to again at nationals. What happens if you win nationals?

Mike Nelson

So if we win the international competition we get the ultimate bragging rights and we do get a cash prize. If we win nationals again we get our spot back at the international competition next year.

Ashley Thornberg

And where is that at?

Mike Nelson

International competition is in Stillwater, Minnesota.

Ashley Thornberg

Wait, you don't even get to go to like Switzerland?

Mike Nelson

No, unfortunately the year that we got it um. But you know what?

Ashley Thornberg

I'm not laughing at you.

Mike Nelson

We get the home field advantage. We get plenty of, plenty of friends and family get to come and see the work whereas if we were in the French Alps or something which would be amazing um I don't think the friends and family would be coming to cheer us on.

Ashley Thornberg

Oh well that's a very positive spin on, on things. What do you think your chances are?

Mike Nelson

We're, I'm very confident. I think it's going to be really cold and the fact that we have this training this week where we're working in the 30, 40 mile an hour winds.

Ashley Thornberg

You guys are, this is like Rocky. Like you got to train harder than you fight.

Mike Nelson

Yeah absolutely. This is, this is training. We're going to have that advantage over the Florida team and the.

Ashley Thornberg

There's not a Florida team.

Mike Nelson

There is indeed.

Ashley Thornberg

There is?

Mike Nelson

There is indeed. They are sand carvers by trade but they got into snow a few years ago. There's also some.

Ashley Thornberg

And where are they training? Do we know?

Mike Nelson

You know they might have a meat locker somewhere where they make some snow and, and work in there just to get acclimated but I have a feeling they're going to have a hard time with zero degree weather. Yeah.

Ashley Thornberg

Oh I know a woman from Florida who asked me if you could work outside if it was 55 degrees out.

Mike Nelson

That is hilarious.

Ashley Thornberg

Let's talk about your actual gear. What are you wearing?

Mike Nelson

When it's this cold it is absolutely imperative that you have good gear. I've got a wicking layer with insulating long johns. I have some sweat pants underneath that with another insulating layer.

I've got waterproof insulated bibs as well. Base layer. I got a thermal layer underneath my jacket and then this waterproof super warm our team jacket if we got this year.

We will be getting the matching bibs next week as well.

Ashley Thornberg

Right. Hey tell me about a beer that you guys got going on.

Mike Nelson

So we did have a collaboration with Drekker. They were awesome enough to design a custom Team North Dakota beer can for us that we will be bringing to our events to share with our competitors. We're really excited about that.

Ashley Thornberg

Yeah it feels like snow sculpting and beer, ice fishing and beer, curling and beer. All like the North Dakota things and beer go together kind of well.

Mike Nelson

I think you you need to reward yourself for being bold enough to be out here in this.

Ashley Thornberg

All right well anything I didn't touch on that that you want to chat about? We learned about the tools, we learned about the design process, we learned about the gear.

Mike Nelson

One thing that I really like is the temperatures. The sounds the tools make changes so much depending on how cold it is. Like it's so cold now when you run a tool across the snow it sounds like you're dragging it across marble.

When it's really warm you know if it's around freezing it's just kind of like mashed potatoes right? It doesn't have that that chisel-y sound. So this we like because we can get really nice precise detail whereas when it's 20-30 degrees we don't quite get that.

The sun can really start softening the snow and and lose some of the detail.

Ashley Thornberg

Do you ever just call it like a Salvador Dali piece at that point?

Mike Nelson

Sometimes you just everything just looks like a either like a Cubist potato.

Ashley Thornberg

That's a good band name. All right well for the sake of my gear I'm signing off and thanks for joining us here on Main Street.

Mike Nelson

Thank you very much.

NOTE: This transcript was generated by AI. There may be errors. The official record is the audio of the show.