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Team ND at World Snow Sculpting; PBS Stars; Tom Isern; Matt Olien

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World Snow Sculpting Championship 2024
World Snow Sculpting Championship 2024

Show Rundown:

Team North Dakota's Snow Sculpting group is in Wisconsin vying for their national title. Discover their experiences at the global snow sculpting contest. Explore a Plains Folk essay, "Jackrabbit Pie," by historian Dr. Tom Isern. Enjoy sky watching with the family, but indoors? Upcoming is the planetarium show, "One World, One Sky: Big Bird's Adventure," with insights from MSUM Planetarium Director Dr. Sara Schultz and Prairie Public Education Services Manager Dr. Tim Wollenzein. Catch Matt Olien's critique of the film, "Godzilla: Minus One."

Transcript: Snow Sculpting:

The most fun you can do sober and your pants on.

A ringing endorsement for looking at Great Plains winter square in the face and putting on not just pants, long johns, but also I've got a wicking layer with and waterproof insulated bibs and thermal layer underneath my jacket and even more our team grabbing some reinforcements.

Yesterday I brought you guys coffee. That is so good.

The hot stuff that you have is a tea, a herbal tea that's from the Boreal forest.

The mayor of Stillwater just gave me a shot of tequila and then going outside for the sake of going outside. 

There are options of course but none of the usual suspects appeals to these people. They're a little different.

I think snow sculptors are weird. 

They're snow sculptors from obvious places like Finland and Canada, but also Ecuador and Mexico.

We came from a city that the name is the city of the palm trees, so you can imagine we are freezing here.

Team North Dakota Snow Sculpting is the reigning U.S. championship team. Jay Ray is the captain.

I studied my ears here this past couple weeks.

With team members Josh Zeis. 

It's all a part of the rich pageantry of visual texture. 

And Mike Nelson.

I can create these really nice convex shapes. And it has a real satisfying sound when the snow is nice and cold.

They keep the mood light.

We're gonna measure my nose crystals. We need a foot model.

They're at the World Snow Sculpting Championships in Stillwater, Minnesota.

We think big in Stillwater. We're not shuttering doors in January, right?

Sarah Jesperson is the kind of gal who gets things done.

A few years ago we decided that we wanted to do something really vibrant in the city to try to keep the economy strong in January, which is Trixie in Minnesota. And you know, I made phone calls to any winter event that existed. A company called Winter Fun answered my phone call and there was snow sculpting.

I asked if we could do an event and they said we've always looked for a world location. And I said, send me up. And then they're like, wait, who are you?

And I was like, oh, I just own a local bar. So I ended up having enough like chutzpah to say that I think our town would do it and then partnered with the Chamber.

Three years later, the event is growing.

Between 50 and 100,000 people walk through.

And making a big impression on the local economy.

Almost all of them have record breaking weekends.

The sculptors come early and get a taste of what the town has to offer.

We all had a spa day together. We went to sauna, hot tub, had some robes, some Japanese flippy floppies, nice little comfy leather chairs that have these Himalayan salt little footstools that glow and they're super hot and you put your feet on them and they feel amazing. And I sat on one and that also felt amazing on my butt.

And come Wednesday, they get to work.

A lot of it's kind of just look and feel, making sure everything flows evenly without high spots or things that look out of place.

And they pretty much don't stop. 

Maybe all night.

 Even if it's so very cold.

We don't want wind. We don't want sun. We don't want rain.

It's not too windy. We just want bitter cold.

Until their vision is made manifest. Team North Dakota's entry is called the Solace of Sleep. Imagine someone lying down like one of those salt floats, but instead of horizontal, she's vertical.

14 feet tall with the hair floating in the air. And she almost looks like she's not even connected to this earth. For the hair, channel Medusa.

Her worms are all crazed. Yeah. They're up.

 Except it's not snakes creating the wild hair.Rather, it's suspended animation.

She's not Medusa. She's a woman in the most peaceful slumber you can imagine.

They call her Gertie. And Gertie is also massive.

We're all, you included, sitting underneath 7,000 pounds of snow.

7,000 pounds?

7,000 pounds.

Even taller than the 10 foot block of snow they were given. Here's Mike Nelson explaining how they made that happen.

So the very first thing we did when we got here is start cutting, meticulously cutting squares off of the very top and then carefully stacking them up like Legos where the head is so that we could get the height that we needed for this piece.

The height and the hair were critical to their design.

The carvers would recognize that as like a technical feat, absolutely. And it ate up a lot of time and effort. And so we had to do a lot of work quickly when we are kind of unleashed from that minutiae of working in the hair.

And we had pieces fall off and reattached and... Yeah, yeah. There's one piece of the hair that's still sitting over by the flag.

Every time there's an accident on day two, it's a happy accident because you end up just working around it.

So you can reattach that hair?

There are a few reattachment points on the head. I'm not going to tell you where they are. So if you can't notice them, then we're doing it.

Well, luckily when it's this cold, if you use a little bit of water and you have a little patience, you can freeze things and use that as a make a little glue.

They ran into different problems on the face.

Right below her eye, there's a kind of dark streak. That's just ice chunks right there. And her nose is ice.

And one option is to cut it all out and try to pack snow in. It doesn't always work well. The other option is to carve slowly through it and just leave it.

But they felt pretty comfortable with the body. 

The undulations, right Jay? 

Especially given that their last design was a Sasquatch.

We know the anatomy parameters of a woman. We don't know the anatomy parameters of a Sasquatch, so we're a little bit more free with what we can pull off.

But the hardest part to pull off? Remember that suspended animation part?

I don't know how it holds like this.

Well, that means they want all 7,000 pounds of Gertie to defy gravity, like Aladdin riding on a magic carpet.

We have an undercut that is very risky.

What do you mean risky?

If it was going to fail, we're not stopping it from failing, you know?

Okay, if 7,000 pounds comes down, you're not going to save me.

I'll push you out of the way after I get out of the way.

For Team North Dakota, the floating is what makes the design so appealing. It's really hard to execute.

I'm trying to make this bottom part of this woman figure look like she's on top of some fabric that's also floating with her.

Snow and ice bring creative opportunities, appealing to Amanda from Team FLOzen, who's from Florida and frozen. 

She normally works in sand. So with sand, I wouldn't be able to have these undercuts and some of the cut-throughs that are going on here because with gravity, we all know sand wants to be laying flat on the beach and not elevated. Okay, so an undercut, you mean sort of this hollowing out?

Yes, hollowing out, you know, the overhangs. You can't do any of that stuff with sand, typically, unless you have the amazing sand in the world that has more clay in it. Her team's sculpture is a commentary on how we portray ourselves.

You know, the woman's taking this happy mask off her face and she's showing how she truly is. She's kind of opening up and showing how sad and or depressed or anxious she is behind the mask. So it's about, you know, us being kind to other people because we don't know what other people are going through until you look behind that mask of happiness that some of us wear on our faces every day.

I mean, it's hard sometimes to be vulnerable and to open up your heart to people and just to, you know, put on that happy face every day.

Art helped her through a very difficult time.

My daughter had been struggling through COVID, like major depression, suicidal. For a teenager going through COVID, you know, a lot of teens struggled through that time. They are isolated and kids need to be with other kids to develop for their mental health.

And so she was really struggling each and every day. So I did a sculpture with her entangled in thorns and then she was pushing up, like looking up to the sky, coming out of it, and the thorns are turning to flowers.

Team Thune from Minnesota is worried about the direction humanity is going. Theirs is a naked man flopped over a donkey in a dopamine-fueled stupor.

We communicate with grunts rather than words, our shoulders slumped and heads drooping, only our thumbs move, endlessly flicking up and down on the glowing rectangles clutched in our hands. Just a small part of our brain still works and that part is entirely devoted to consuming the algorithm-fed images flashing before us.

Team Funland from Finland made a piece on the creative process.

It's a story about how ideas are born. So there's this big head, it might be a dreaming person or something, and the idea is bursting out from the head with a very powerful blast.

Is that how your ideas feel?

Sometimes, the good ideas at least.

What do the bad ideas feel like, way more fun?

It might be some sort of explosion too, but maybe not so nice.

Carlos from Team Mexican Snow went for bucolic beauty.

I love horses, it's one of my favorite animals, and I knew that with the river behind us, it was going to look beautiful. Any landscape, you put two horses and it becomes a beauty. Not one horse?


They're going for texture, and they took a big risk.

And we designed a tool, a special tool for this texture, but we couldn't try it until we came here. So we came just crossing our fingers that it was going to work, and it works.

Team Fjordwitches from Quebec, faced a totally unexpected challenge, one that left them unimpressed with their airline.

Air caca nada. We say air caca nada, because caca is like poop in French, so it's air caca nada.

Because while all three teammates arrived, their luggage did not.

We were like poor people with nothing.

Team North Dakota lent them their tools. Even though it's technically a competition, everyone here is just happy to be among their own kind.

Do you know a lot of people that would spend four days in the snow doing this? It's like tons of snow.

Which is an interesting wrinkle when it comes to the judging process. The teams themselves pick the winner. They can't vote for themselves, but after that, they factor in their own criteria for what makes a snow sculpture good.

Complexity. If something's really intricate, delicate, we know that it took a lot of extra time.

With snow, it really helps to utilize shadow because it's just so white and it absorbs light. So if you have just a big round ball, it's not going to look very interesting. But if you make a bunch of carvings into it, then you're utilizing shadow play and you get a more dynamic, dramatic piece.

This part was especially taxing for Marie-Claude Paris-Tanguay from Team Fjordwitches. 

How are you feeling about judging?

Well, it's not going so well because the more I look at the sculpture, the more difficult it's becoming to choose. So I'm like suffering. My heart cries.

And I already cried two times. And I'm not at the end of the line, so I don't know how many times I will cry until I reach the end. You actually cried?

Yeah, the caribou. Have you seen the one in the head? When I've seen it, it was too much.

I cried. This one too. It's like if he has a soul.

He's like strong-minded. You know, but a quiet strength inside. I mean, so I cried there too.

Team North Dakota relied on their gravity-defying element because it was so difficult to achieve.

[Crowd noise]

Three days and 40 plus hours of carving later, it's time for the winners.

 In third place, Team North Dakota. Let's go.

They're on the podium in their first world competition. And the camaraderie that was built up over these days, it's as strong as ever as they cheer on the winners.

First place, 2024 World Snow Scalping Champions are the Fjordwitches.

That's awesome.

I voted for them. Me and Jay did first. All right.


For her part, Marie-Claude isn't letting it go to her head.

What's the opposite of eternal? Ephemeral. Yeah.

That's how we describe the fact that it would last maybe one week and then it's done. It's art. Ephemeral art.

That is kind of the thing about this art form is you do have to practice letting go. A couple hours in the sun and these are... Yes.

And if not, one week later, they put the bulldozer in it anyway. It must be so much fun to drive the bulldozer. I would like to try once.

Maybe they'll let you. I don't know. Yes, that's right.

I should stay one more week and ask to drive the bulldozer.

Team North Dakota dissected how they can improve and are already getting ready for the next challenge, defending their national title. And like true artists, they're not taking the easy path. 

Are you going to do a different design?

Always different. We always want to challenge ourselves to try something different. Someday, snow carving is going to make me a billionaire.

So she knows that.

She knows that. She says that all the time. Do you know how much money a billion dollars is, Josh?

I don't know. I've never been good with money. 

NOTE: This transcript was generated by Artificial Intelligence tools. The audio of the show is the official record.