Who makes those magnificent Festival du Voyageur snow sculptures?

February 8, 2017 Jason Halstead

The business behind the snow art made famous by Festival du Voyageur. #HEHO2017

snow scultpture

There’s a flurry of activity this time of year as Winnipeg's snow-sculptors get to work around the city — and it’s their love of the craft, camaraderie and the opportunity to work on such a scale that drives them.

While Winnipeg’s Festival du Voyageur provides some of the country’s best opportunities for snow-sculptors (along with festivals in other cities including Quebec City’s Carnaval de Québec and Ottawa’s Winterlude), it’s generally not the available project commissions that motivate the carvers. With the frosty working conditions and massive pieces that may require 30-40 hours of labour, snow-sculptors have to love their work.

Meet the magicians

“I know some snow-sculptors who make a basic living, doing both snow and ice, and even other ephemeral materials like sand, year round,” said snow-sculptor Gary Tessier. “But mainly snow sculpture is something we do because we love it.”

Born in Quebec City, Tessier, 60, is a fine arts grad who has called Winnipeg home for 35 years. His snow-sculpture work has taken him all over Canada — to Quebec City, Montreal, Whistler, Granby, Whitehorse, Churchill and Ottawa.

With his fellow ‘Neigistes’ and Festival du Voyageur, Tessier is also responsible for starting Festival’s snow-sculpting symposium 25 years ago. 

Tessier’s sons — Denis Vrignon-Tessier, 34, and André, 26 — are both also involved in snow carving. All three have been working on pieces for this year’s Festival du Voyageur and Gary and Denis were in Ottawa the first weekend of February representing the Prairie region in the snow-sculpture competition at Winterlude.

“My dad was carving when I was born, so I just grew up helping out — and eventually when I was 15 or 16 I started in local competitions and then I was able to get contracts for myself, and I’ve been doing it since then,” said Vrignon-Tessier, as he took a break from carving a sculpture at Broadway and Main Street that will portray a couple of figures braving the wind and cold.

Festival du Voyageur 2017 snow sculptures

Denis Vrignon-Tessier shows off a maquette of the snow sculpture

he was been working on at the intersection of Main Street and Broadway.

Photo by Jason Halstead

The magic of the medium

It’s the scale of the work that always draws Tessier and his sons to the medium.

“There is no other medium around where you can do such a large piece so quickly,” Tessier said. “It’s lots of hard work — you’re doing a lot of shoveling. The piece we did in Ottawa was about 23 feet high and 12-by-12 feet around.”

“It’s very much about planning, in the sense that what you’re doing effectively uses the volume of the block,” said Vrignon-Tessier, who recently completed his master's degree in architecture. “It forces you to get really good at thinking about structure. It’s also kind of fun and meditative and it forces you to get outside in the winter.”

While the less hardy may question the sanity of carvers willing to endure brutal wind chills to create a work that will ultimately melt, that’s part of the charm for the artists.

“That’s kind of the fun of it — you have to let go,” Vrignon-Tessier said of the ephemeral nature of snow as a medium. “And if you do a bad piece… it’s gone!”

“It disappears and melts back into the ecosystem and comes back as snow the next year,” said Tessier. “It’s a living entity. Snow is changing on you all the time, depending on weather conditions. You have to work with it and be very respectful of the material. Nice clean snow is beautiful.”

Festival du Voyageur snow scultptures

Illuminated sculptures from 2016 Festival du Voyageur grounds.

Making art in sub-zero temperatures

Snow-sculptor Charlie Johnston, 54, also a fine arts grad who works as a mural painter with his C5 Artworks company, as well as a sculptor of large-scale works in other media, is also attracted to the massive scale and the ethic of putting something nature provides in abundance to good use.

“We live in Winnipeg and I’m a Manitoban,” Johnston said of how he was drawn to snow as a sculpting medium. “When life gives you lemons, you make lemonade. When life gives you snow and sub-zero temperatures, you make art.”

Johnston works on snow sculptures almost exclusively in Winnipeg, but regularly travels for mural projects, whether it’s across Canada or to the U.S. and China.

“It’s very event-based,” Johnston said of snow-carving opportunities. “There are sculptors who travel around to do different competitions.”

This year, Johnston is working on pieces commissioned by Festival du Voyageur along Kenaston Boulevard — sculptures of a polar bear and a moose.

“The beauty of the medium is that every time I look at a block I think about how hard it would be and how long it would take to carve something like that in marble,” Johnston said. “And how much it would cost — the logistics are staggering. So to be able to experiment with large-scale sculpture in the medium of snow is very enjoyable and it’s a really different kind of sculpting.”

Winnipeg snow sculptor Charlie Johnston with one of his works on Kenaston Boulevard.

Photo by Jason Halstead

The right tool for the job

The medium dictates the way the snow artists plans their work.

“I have to think about durability and safety, how the public interacts with it,” Johnston said. “So it’s about big, bold, dynamic designs that really use light and shadow. If you don’t do that, your sculpture can end up looking like a big white block.”

The tools of the snow-carver’s trade regularly include shovels, wood saws, pry bars and other homemade implements.

“Pretty much every carver fabricates a planning tool to smooth surfaces on the block,” Johnston said. “It’s a very important finishing device for your block because if your surfaces are too rough or coarse, the sun will work on it a lot faster. It’s also the way you get your clean lines and planes.”

A team comes together for the love of snow carving

Snow-sculptor David MacNair, 57, studied advertising art at Red River College and now mainly works in graphic design and printing, but has also produced commissioned steel sculptures. A snow sculptor for 30-plus years, MacNair has been part of the G4 sculpting team for more than two decades along with carvers Barry Bonham, Dave Maddocks and Jim Alexander, with support member Gerald ‘Sisyphus’ Paquin handling the (seemingly never-ending) shovelling duties. G4 has travelled to work at Carnaval de Québec and Winterlude, and to festivals in Minneapolis-St. Paul and Whitehorse, Yukon.

“Those are by invitation and basically your travel, meals and hotel are covered,” says MacNair. “For us, our team is designed around having fun and doing some nice pieces.”

This year, G4 is producing five pieces for Festival du Voyageur: one at City Hall for the 2017 Canada Summer Games (the Niibin mascot), a Canada 150 piece at Lagimodière and Bishop Grandin (two beavers perched on rocks), a sculpture on Provencher of Canada’s new official bird (the grey jay or whisky jack), a piece for Veterans Affairs and the Province of Manitoba at the Legislature in honour of the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, as well as the entrance sculpture at Festival du Voyageur Park, an abstracted Canada Goose piece called ‘Ô Canada.’

“It’s really about the teamwork, the camaraderie and the creativity,” MacNair said. “And working with such a large mass of snow in a short period of time. It’s a lot of fun. The biggest benefit has to be the public appreciation. You’re working and you’ll have people honking horns and waving.”

MacNair says he and other local snow carvers have also hosted workshops over the years.

“People have a lot of fun learning it, but it takes a bit of a die-hard to do it,” MacNair said. “Even if it’s -30 C, you have to go out and finish your piece on time.”

Festival du Voyageur snow sculptures

Illuminated sculptures from 2016 Festival du Voyageur grounds.

This year, Festival du Voyageur is set for February 17-26. The Festival du Voyageur International Snow Sculpture Symposium will feature nine snow-sculptors from across Canada and from around the world. For more information, visit heho.ca and the International Snow Sculpting Symposium page.

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About the Author

Jason Halstead

Jason is a Winnipeg-based journalist and photographer who has been published across Canadian media.

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