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Chilly classroom

Snow sculpture school features lessons in cold art

Keith Vandervort
Posted 2/4/20

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Chilly classroom

Snow sculpture school features lessons in cold art


ELY – Ely’s next generation of artists got a crash course in snow sculpting as part of the kick-off to the 2020 Ely Winter Festival this past week. The ten-day festival runs through Feb. 16.

For the first time, professional sculptors are mentoring several local high school and Vermilion Community College art students, along with VCC’s interim art instructor, on snow carving. 

“This is yet another way to help promote our festival and celebrate this wonderful season,” said Shauna Vega, EWF executive director said. “We are looking to help get our young people in the community involved in our festival and to help them to bring out their inner artist.”

The students are working this week to put the finishing touches on their wolf sculpture and to add more detail. “All the students were very enthusiastic to take part in this new program and one VCC student even inquired about getting his own block of snow to put his new skills to the test,” she said.

VCC interim art instructor Abbey Blake created a miniature clay model of a wolf to give the students an idea of what the finished product would look like. “I just quickly created this to give the students a three-dimensional model of what we could create,” she said. 

Blake, who is at VCC for this school year, said she had never used snow as a sculpting medium. “We have an amazing team of students and we are all having fun learning this process,” she said. “It is a totally different process than with clay. With snow you have to take away all the material you don’t want. Usually with clay, an artist can add bits of material to get to the desired shape. With snow it is mostly a reductive process. On the other hand, snow is a pretty giving material. It is lots of fun being outside in the park and seeing all the snow sculptures that will soon take shape.”

With the help of local artist Wade Pharr, the students gathered at Whiteside Park last week for snow sculpting school. “Start by looking at your block of snow and at what angle the light will hit it,” he said. “Each snow block is different and you have to work with the varieties and imperfections in the snow.”

He reviewed some of the best tools to use to sculpt the snow and the techniques that work for him to shape the snow into what he is looking for. “You are not just confined to the four sides of the snow. Think outside the box,” he said.

The students worked well past sunset for several nights last week and were in the park this week to finish their project.

The highlight of each Winter Festival is, of course, the International Snow Sculpting Symposium. This year, 13 teams from Minnesota, the Upper Midwest, and Canada will transform their designs into amazing giant sculptures. 

“Thousands of people walk through the park throughout the festival,” Vega said. “This weekend, visitors will be able to interact with the sculptors, who love talking about their designs. Amateur individuals, families, and groups will carve smaller amateur blocks with judging and prizes awarded on Saturday afternoon.”

Tower’s Doug Petersen signed on to carve Northern Grounds’ snow block next to the building. Nancy Scheibe and her team will again carve Front Porch’s traditional rendition of the beautiful Wolf, Bear, Moose EWF pin, designed by Nancy herself. “Check out the block at the Grand Ely Lodge, being carved by Emma Kari, a recent Ely graduate who designed the 2018 EWF pin,” Vega said.


Ten days of fun

The Ely Winter Festival began on Thursday, Feb. 6 and runs through next Sunday, Feb. 16. During those ten days, Ely visitors and residents will have many events and activities to enjoy.  

“ArtWalk volunteers filled Ely’s storefront windows with beautiful art,” Vega said. “The EWF Board of Directors and many volunteers have been working hard to offer new and traditional events that will enhance our enjoyment of winter. An EWF brochure, available at many local businesses, will help art walkers plan their tour, or go to and click on Events.”

The Ely Folk School has again developed dozens of classes to choose from throughout the ten-day festival. “It will be a hub of activity. More classes are being added and can be found at,” she said.

Other popular Winter Festival events are the KUBB Tournament in the park and NLAA’s Downtown Art Market at Amici’s Ceremony Hall on West Sheridan Street. 

Live music is a big part of this year’s festival, including the Valentine’s Day concert with singer-songwriter Courtney Yasmineh, joined by Tim Stouffer, in the recently-restored Society Hall upstairs of Northern Grounds, and the Lumber Jack and Lumber Jill Party with Van and the Free Candies at Piragis Northwoods Company on Saturday, Feb. 15.

A new event was just added Monday. “We are going to have our first wedding ceremony in the park during this year’s Winter Festival,” Vega said. “Look for the ceremony to start about 11 a.m. and come congratulate the happy couple.”

This year’s festival headquarters are located at Northern Grounds Coffee and Wine Bar, at 2 W. Sheridan St. Winter Festival pins, T-shirts, and other items will be available there for sale. 

The Ely Winter Festival and the Ely ArtWalk are funded in part by grants from the Minnesota State Arts Board and the Arrowhead Regional Arts Council (thanks to a legislative appropriation from the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund), the Donald G. Gardner Humanities Trust, the Ely Chamber of Commerce, the city of Ely, and local merchants, organizations and individuals. 


Major sponsors are Ely Family Dental, Fortune Bay Resort and Casino, Grand Ely Lodge, Steger Mukluks, Twin Metals, and Zup’s. “Almost every restaurant in town donates a meal to every carver to be used during their stay in Ely,” Vega added.


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