by Manu SharmaOct 22, 2023
Finding a snowflake carved with a precision of the footsteps on surface covered with natural snow is a sight that is not often witnessed. The frigid temperature of Swiss Alps does not deter the British snow artist, Simon Beck, to practice what he likes to do. The long stretches of snow are not limited to skiing for the artist, who is also an orienteering expert. The snow-capped land serves as a big canvas to represent the art that might have ephemeral quality but leaves a lasting impression on the viewers. The ‘perseverance’ of the land artist and ‘patience’ of the mandala practitioners are two key qualities that inform the work of Beck.
Interestingly, Beck, now reckoned as a landscape artist, studied engineering before turning onto the creative fields. He takes us through his journey of these monumental transitions from science to sports to the creative field, “The truth is I never really became an engineer. I did Engineering Science at Oxford because everyone said ‘You have got to go there if you can get in, you would be a fool to turn them down’, and I went there knowing I did not want to do the course, and from then on I was fighting a losing battle against my problems. So, I ended up using my orienteering skills to make orienteering maps, and it is the mapmaking skills (use of the magnetic compass and distance determination using pace counting) (used in reverse) that are used to make the snow drawings. Plus, of course, physical stamina that comes from walking all day mapmaking or hiking in the mountains”.
If you would have thought that snow is ephemeral enough to have a limited advantage, Berk has even trudged the expanses of sand. From beach art in Somerset to the shore of Brean, Beck has created intricate works on the sand too, “As one uses the intertidal zone, the lines are created by ‘raking’ the surface, as the concept works on the difference in the colour of sand where the surface has dried, versus raked sand, where the wet sand from underneath is exposed. So, raking can start about four hours after high-tide, and the drawing has to be completed two hours before the following high-tide. One has two hours to do the measuring, and six hours to do the raking. Exactly why the raked sand remains a different colour through a long hot day is a mystery; it fades a little sometimes, but not much. Sand is easier than snow because the measuring can be done without creating unwanted lines, but there is the obvious challenge of completing it in time”.
Whether it is snow or sand, the impermanence of the canvas may lead to unwanted surprises on the ground. Furthermore, the art of making - dragon, fractal, snowflake or even a geometrical pattern - on snow or sand is a race against time. To avoid losing out on quality time on the site, Beck digitally creates a piece on a computer. He explains it further, “It's a matter of choosing a design that can be made well enough within the time constraint and, in the case of snow as the canvas, being able to do the measuring by working along routes through the drawing that will be part of the final work. So, on snow, drawings that consist of disconnected elements, for instance, lettering will have unwanted lines connecting the letters together”.
The artworks are not easily accessible for everyone either because of the travel constraints or the inherent short-lived life of the artworks. To overcome these limitations, Beck documents and captures the artworks in the form of images to lend longer life to the works. The pocket book on his snow art gives a touch of permanency to his works. Beck elaborates on the need of dissemination, “Now that everyone expects video and drone photos, this is an area I should be making more effort. At home in Arc2000, there are excellent locations for ground-based photography and not much need for a drone (although it's time I bought one), and the sand work is done at Brean Cove, where there is an excellent hill beside the beach for ground-based photos, and about half the time it is too windy to fly a drone. And two people have crashed their drones trying to film me!”
When the creation of the snow art is not just a daunting experience but depends on the natural phenomena, what is it that the artist is expecting from his audience who sees the final form of the work on a pristine surface? Beck declares, “Art affects different people in different ways. For me, it's a challenge to make the design as well as I can, but in snow, the biggest factor in how good the end result looks is usually the lighting when it's complete. The sun should be low, but not low enough that part of the drawing is in shadow, and the snow should be light and fluffy and there should be no wind. Ten out of 12 drawings I made when I visited Colorado in January 2020 were damaged by the wind”.
The frequent art made out of snow has been snowmen. Its presence in history, literature, art confirms its long theological and political concerns. Be it the fourteenth-century manuscript of The Book of Hours or a lesser-known snowman by the Italian sculptor Michelangelo, commissioned by the state–ruler Piero di Lorenzo de' Medici for his courtyard, the snow art has long reigned the socio-creative fields. The snow art by Beck, currently devoid of any –isms, cements the long-drawn affiliation to snow as a creative material for the artist. Beck focuses on the process of making these snow arts, in the ensuing years, given the politically charged-up world we live in, he might aim to align his work with a deeper meaning beyond creative delights.
Also explore Dutch artist Nico Laan's sand paintings on the beaches of the Netherlands.