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Geometry in the Snow

Geometry in the Snow

January 31, 2008

When word comes down that his team has been accepted to the annual International Snow Sculpture Championships in Breckenridge, Colorado, an accomplishment in its own right, the real work for Stan Wagon is just beginning. 

A Professor of Mathematics and Computer Science at Macalester College, Wagon and friend Dan Schwalbe have entered the competition nine times over the last ten years, and have built stunning sculptures that have gained some international attention. What starts out as a 20-ton, 10 foot x 10 foot x 12 foot block of snow is marked up by the team with about 50 points of reference, and then cut and shaped into what the judges and public see five days later. About 30,000 people will see the finished work before it melts.

David Chamberlain's Cold Hands, Warm Heart design sits in the foreground of Team Minnesota's replica snow sculpture (left) and a view of the finished product from the "heart" side (right). Photos by Rich Seeley.

“It’s nice to take a surface and understand it in three dimensions instead of just looking at it in a photograph,” said Wagon.

This year’s entry, dubbed Cold Hands, Warm Heart, was designed by Massachusetts based artist David Chamberlain and represented how “cold hands, a reserved exterior, or unusual appearance can all disguise a warm heart.”  Along with Wagon, Schwalbe, and Chamberlain, Rich and Beth Seeley helped create Team Minnesota’s twelve-foot tall sculpture.   

A look back at any of Wagon’s entries into the contest will reveal a mathematical influence in all of the designs.  The groups 2005 entry, Knot Divided, took on the characteristics of a Möbius strip. Rhapsody in White, the team’s 2000 entry, represents a minimal surface discovered in 1864 by mathematician Alfred Enneper. "Usually, the idea is to be mathematical and visually attractive,” noted Wagon. "Though in the past two years we have moved to art with a geometrical basis, as opposed to a purely mathematical form. We like big, white surfaces because they look really good in the snow, and our work always looks better as time goes on and they begin to melt.”

Wagon’s first entry into the contest, titled Invisible Handshake, was in 1999.  Since then, his team’s methods have evolved and the kinds of tools they used has changed. This year’s toolbox was filled with, among other homemade equipment, an ice saw, a piece of Lexan with mending plates attached, and a stainless steel helmet used for shaping convexities. The team also employed the use of a wooden frame around the base so they could work in an accurate 3-dimensional Cartestion coordinate system.

His team’s work has earned second place three times, in 2000 with the aforementioned Rhapsody in White, in 2003 with Whirled White Web, a design that also garnered U.S. Snow Sculpture of the Year, and in 2007 with Cool Jazz, a sculpture that was featured on the poster for the 2008 event. Wagon’s teams have also earned Honorable Mention twice, in 2002 and 2004. —Ryan Miller

The Spanish team's entry in the International Snow Sculpture Championships (left) and Wagon's team's second place sculpture from 2003 called Whirled White Web (right). Photos by Rich Seeley (left) and Carlo Séquin (right).

News Date: 
Wednesday, January 30, 2008