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National snow-sculpting champs visit Tech

Garrett Neese/Daily Mining Gazette Bob Lechtenberg and Josh Jakubowski, members of the national champion snow building team Sculptora Borealis, build a statue on the campus of Michigan Technological University Saturday afternoon.

HOUGHTON — Many snow sculptors hold their secrets closely. Josh Jakubowski wants to share them.

“A lot of snow sculptors have discussions about this,” he said. “If you die with your secrets, no one’s ever going to know, and the sport’s never going to evolve … just knowing what tools to use, and basic techniques and principles can bring everybody up to making some really beautiful artwork.”

Jakubowski and Bob Lechtenberg, of the national snow sculpting champions Sculptora Borealis, demonstrated their techniques recently while building a snow statue on the patio at the J.R. Pelt and Van Opie Library at Michigan Technological University.

The visit was sponsored by Tech’s Blue Key Honor Society, which organizes the annual Winter Carnival. This year’s Carnival, themed “Tasty Foods for Wintry Moods,” will be held Feb. 8-11.

Blue Key President Joe Dlugos hopes to get students more involved with the month-long and all-nighter statue building that is a hallmark of the annual carnival.

“It’s pretty much passed down by word-of-mouth how to make a snow statue,” he said. “We want to bring these guys in and give a masterclass on how to make a snow statue and with a little bit different design and different ways. They use pure snow, and a lot of statues in past years use snow and water so it turns into ice. So with their statues it looks a lot cleaner.”

Sculptora Borealis are the winners of the past two national snow sculpting championships, and will defend their title in early February at annual Winter Fest in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin.

Two weeks before that, they will also represent the U.S. in the World Championships in Stillwater, Minnesota.

Last weekend’s design presented a slightly smaller canvas than the group does in regular competition: a 10-foot cube in Stillwater, and a 8-by-8-by-10 size in Lake Geneva.

Starting from an 8-foot cube — less than a third of the size of the largest Carnival statues — the group built a detailed snow statue of a pair of tentacles preparing a cup of coffee, flanked by spoons and coffee packets.

Ben Jaszczak, marketing and communications multimedia specialist for Tech, had reached out to Sculptora Borealis for the visit after looking up some of the snow statues from national competitions.

“I thought with the workload our students have, and the sheer scale of the statues they’re building, it really might be a huge leg up for them to be able to build with the technique that allows them to make these really beautiful finishes, using less snow, and being a little bit easier on the arms to cut through,” he said. “I thought who better to teach it than a two-year reigning national champion?”

The group spends more than 400 hours on design; the clay models, built at one-twelfth scale, can take 100 itself, Jakubowski said. They make a point of staying away from “cookie-cutter” designs, devoting additional research to seeing what’s already been done (and overdone).

“We like to do a little more thought-provoking, deeper message type sculptures,” he said. “And this is just really fun.”

By Saturday afternoon, they’d cleared away the bigger chunks of snow and could begin medium detail work. They were also beginning work on a sugar dish, sugar packets and spoon.

“We don’t have enough hours to make it look super-refined and super-beautiful,” Jakubowski said. “But it’ll be close. It’ll look really nice. And there’s a coffee shop inside, so it’s very fitting.”

Jakubowski was forming the cup of creamer being poured into the coffee mug. For that, he turned to a specialized tool developed by snow sculptors: the blade from a pet shear welded to a screwdriver.

“The serration of the tip there really goes through the snow really nice,” he said. “If you use a flat blade, it’s more surface area hitting snow, so it takes more force to make that snow pop out … all the years that we’ve been doing this, you kind of learn what tools work really well and then you just make new tools and refine them.”

The rough shape was emerging Saturday afternoon, and Jakubowski was looking to the detail work ahead: suction cups on the tentacles, the lip of the cup, a ripple effect where the creamer was being poured into the coffee.

That detail work is done with smaller chisels or customized tools. Lechtenberg has a customized expanded metal tool put on a grinder handle, which he uses to create movement.

Using those sharp tools helps reduce wear and tear on the joints, which can take a beating from the days of work.

“I go to the therapist and get all those problems worked out in the spring,” Jakubowski said. “I’m definitely sore for a couple months afterward.”

Dlugos said he had enjoyed watching the contrast with the scale of the student month-long statues.

“It’s a different type of intricacy than you normally see,” he said. “It’s new and kind of cool to see.”

Builders will benefit from Sculptora Borealis’s expertise beyond the weekend. The team filmed its build and gave a tutorial on the tools and techniques for a video that will be shared with Tech’s Winter Carnival teams. They will also give a Zoom tutorial for builders a couple of days before Carnival.

“We really want to influence the next generation and get them into this, because it’s a lot of fun,” Jakubowski said. “You get to come to a community and talk, and have a great time mixing.”

Sculptora Borealis members said Houghton’s abundance of natural snow could make it a potential site for its own professional competition.

At Lake Geneva, near the Illinois border, the competition relies on man-made snow to provide enough for contestants, Jakubowski said. In natural snow, the pointy ends of the snowflake combine like gears. Artificial snow uses round water droplets, which are packed tighter.

They also give the snow more of a grayish color, compared to the white of natural snow.

Being less dense, the natural snow is easier to carve, Jakubowski said.

“It’s definitely different,” he said. “I like it.”

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