Festival du Voyereur sculpture is now appearing in snow-starved Winnipeg with the help of ski machines.
By Jo Simon
It happens, usually, in January. Snow sculptures start to emerge out of massive blocks of ice on the city’s central boulevards and street corners on both sides of the Red River, mutely sending out a message. Get ready! they announce. The Festival du Voyageur will soon be here!
This year, you’ll understand, things are a bit different. The snow with its slight bluish tinge signals it wasn’t scooped up as it usually is, from the Festival grounds and outside parks and fields, it’s manufactured like the snow that’s dropped on ski runs when winter comes late or leaves early. And this year the blocks are a bit smaller.
Adjustments have been made
Usually, trucks arrive at prearranged spots in central Winnipeg and St. Boniface and dump their snow into the huge plywood forms, where men and boys over a three or four day period tramp it down hard. Then the moisture emerging from the evaporating snow, its escape blocked, wraps itself around nearby crystals to form a hard, solid substance ready for sculptors to go to work. This year the blocks would be moister and harder and it would be very late January before the first cuts were made for the sculpted pieces
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Sculpture is Festival du Voyageur’s major enterprise. It’s a three-tiered event that embraces street display by local artists, an amateur competition and a symposium, a showcase event on the Festival site that draws snow sculptors from three continents and countries as far away as Finland and Argentina, as well as closer-to-home Nova Scotia, Quebec, Manitoba and North Dakota.
The “embellishment” portion brings the sudden adornment of downtown Winnipeg and St. Boniface streets, with local sculptors turning out large and impressive pieces, carved in normal years from massive 12x12x12-foot blocks of frozen snow. Most of the works are commissioned by the Festival organization, which seeks out sponsors, hires the sculptors and gives the seal of approval to their design proposals, or those of certain sponsors.
The snow sculptors have developed long association with Festival, and each other. A specialized group for whom sculpting is a part time occupation, they have their own skills, their own tools and are attached for a few weeks each year to an art world all their own, content in most cases to work in anonymity to give pleasure to the public viewing their display.
The task of these sculptors is to embellish the city, and help ensure that we locals know its Festival time ahead once again.
Then there is the symposium, a showcase of artists who come in teams to Festival from around the world to create a wonderland of 12, or this year 13, massive frozen snow pieces at Voyageur Park, a transformed Whittier Park, offering its own special celebration of artistic creativity. The teams don’t compete, but find joy in demonstrating what can be done with frozen snow. They come from Switzerland, Holland, Guatemala, Mexico, the United States and elsewhere, working in teams of two or four, or even as many as seven, and forming worldwide connections as they play their trade.
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Traditionally, the sculptor’s tools are spades, square garden shovels with their edges sharpened, used to rough out the shape of the sculpture; snow scoops, to shovel away the snow produced in the cutting process; a fine blade – such as a Zamboni blade to do the fine cutting; a small knife for finishing purposes; and rasps, which are used as a sandpaper and to produce a smooth, paint-like surface. Over the years, Gary Tessier says, there’s been an evolution in snow sculpture tools, with “all kinds of stuff” being invented. But through the years, he has favoured the tools he started with – like the square garden space “sharpened so you can just about shave with it.”
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He studied multi-media at college but today Denis Tessier is a musician by trade. He plays with a band called Les Surveillantes, which performs mainly “out east” in Quebec and the Maritimes.
Denis comes naturally to the world of snow sculpture: the year he was born, in 1982, Gary, his father, began participating in the famed Carnival of Quebec, beside Réal Bernard, one of Manitoba’s leading snow sculptors and a cherished mentor as the pair returned yearly to the big eastern Canada snow sculpture festivals. Denis mother, too, is a talented sculptor and painter, as the Tessier’s art-adorned home attests.
“When I was a kid, 10, 11 or 12,” Denis recalled the other day, “I was always surrounded by my parents doing ice sculpting . Having the tools and shovels and stuff like that I would always try something.” At first, Denis took to carving giant whales out of snow banks.
At age 18, Denis was invited to join Gary and Réal at the Quebec City competition and, soon, at the popular Winterlude Festival in Ottawa as well. In time, he was a leader of his own team and a regular at the St. Boniface festivities.
Today, he counts 35 sculptures he has worked on, but there may have been more. As February approached this year, Denis was sculpting a pair of hands at work on a loom for the Winnipeg show. Father Gary, meanwhile, has contributed to 200 creations.
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Gary Tessier about four years ago returned to a job that was close to heart, co-ordinating snow sculpture events for Festival du Voyageur. It was Gary, as an ardent participant in snow sculpture activities in Quebec and Ottawa – he’s still one of the mainstays of the Carnival operations – who started the symposium in St. Boniface in the late eighties, and can call on contacts across the planet when the100 invitations go out annually for participants.
A manager of health care today, he’ll quickly tell you that the sculpting part of his activities have been “fun”, a word that brings a soft reminder from Denis. Yes, fun. “Only sometimes when it’s 11 p.m. and it’s minus 40 outside and you’re all alone on a block of snow with howling winds,” maybe not quite so much.
He has been invited to events as far away as China, but chosen to keep participation to Canadian festivals, still he can name contacts he’s made from all over the world, many of them built up at Carnival.