Melting masterpieces

Peter Vogelaar's art will be puddles in the spring.

Peter Vogelaar

Peter Vogelaar

The requests start coming in when the only ice available to Peter Vogelaar is being used to cool drinks.

Vogelaar, a 63-year-old sculptor who has garnered international acclaim for his work with ice and snow, isn’t asked in the summer heat to sculpt a frozen queen on her throne or a nativity scene surrounded by cupids.

“I have kids coming up to me in July. ‘Are you going to build a slide this year?'” he says.

Vogelaar has been carving up winter delights — and yes, ice slides too — for 26 years.

The Winlaw resident’s work has appeared at three Olympics, the Carnival de Quebec and at festivals in 15 countries. But on Saturday he was in his hometown with partners David Ducharme and Carl Schlichting to teach would-be sculptors how to shape 13 blocks they chopped out of a nearby pond.

For one family, Vogelaar took a marker and drew a walrus onto the ice before cutting into another visitor’s block with a chain saw. He said the early hurdle with ice sculpting was to look beyond the hunk of H2O.

“People tend to think very blocky. They have a hard time,” he says. “They can look at a block and draw their piece and cut it out. … But [it’s hard] to get them to round it, to walk around the piece.”

Vogelaar has been shaping dreams from snow and sand for decades. Originally born to Dutch immigrants in Victoria, he attended Kootenay School of the Arts in the 1970s.

He had a feel for sculpting, if not the approval of his father who hoped Vogelaar would follow him into the construction business.

“I think my dad thought it was a flaky idea,” says Vogelaar.

“I remember him driving me to arts school and going, ‘Are you sure this is the right thing? Can you make a living as an artist?’ He was really worried. When we won the world sand sculpture championship at Harrison in 2003, he was pretty proud.”

After he left school, Vogelaar eventually moved to Fort St. John and started a sign business. He had several employees and did well financially, but he also became burnt out working 60 hours a week.

Vogelaar’s now-wife Lesley Mayfield suggested they leave it all behind. Vogelaar was 38 years old at the time, had plenty of reasons to stay put, and walked away anyway.

Mayfield bought land in Winlaw and the pair moved in 1989. They had no idea how they’d make a living. Mayfield, an artist herself, started working in textiles while Vogelaar returned to sculpting.

In 1992, Vogelaar was intrigued by the BC snow sculpting championships held in Vernon. He and Mayfield entered the competition and ended up winning a people’s choice award.

“We didn’t have the right tools, we killed ourselves,” he says. “We still managed to make something. Each year you learn a bit more about techniques and you learn about better things. Over the years our toolbox has become the enemy of most other teams. Because we’ve got Carl, he’s an inventor, he comes up with these really awesome tools.”

Vogelaar continued sculpting, and in 1996 his team won first place in Vernon. That meant a paid trip to Quebec City for the carnival, and another people’s choice award. A year later they returned and won every award. Someone gave Vogelaar, Mayfield and Jules Delaney the idea of representing Canada at the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, Japan, and after a fundraising effort they went to the Olympics and earned an honourable mention. Eight years later the team won first place at the Games in Turin, Italy.

Ice sculpting competitions are a lot more frenetic than the final products let on.

Teams often only have 48 hours to complete a piece, and Vogelaar takes pride in the people he works with.

“Certainly there’s some team dynamics that work,” he says. “Some guys will be very particular about anatomy. Carl’s got a great design sense. He looks at things and says, ‘That’s just not right, take that off.’ Generally, if you have a good team you have to trust whatever they’re doing. You can’t stick your nose in whatever David is doing. As we start, initially we’re all trying to work together because we’re roughing out the block. … Once we start going into finishing then everyone’s on their own.”

The team also has plenty of tricks developed over the years to make their creations. Slush, for example, is usually what works to stick pieces of ice together. But for pieces vulnerable to gravity, the team uses a hot plate of aluminum inserted between the ice surfaces with a little moisture. As soon as the plate is pulled out the ice freezes into place.

Vogelaar still can’t believe he gets paid to do what he does. It took until 2003 before he could say he made a living off sculpting, and he now takes on average 10 trips annually for projects.

Sand sculpting actually pays far more than ice, which he says young artists should consider getting into. There’s something about a finished piece that evokes feelings of whimsy in a way other mediums like stone don’t quite match.

“People go, ‘Don’t you want to do bronze?’ I said, you know, I can do bronze but it’s really hard to sell. I’ve sold one big bronze in my life. But I’ve probably made over a 100 giant snow sculptures. The fact is there’s a demand for our unique abilities.”

Of course, bronze sculptures don’t melt. Stone doesn’t get swept away in a gust of wind. Vogelaar’s work is finite, there to evoke a little wonder in a passerby before disappearing to all but memory and Instagram.

He doesn’t mind. It’s the process Vogelaar values, not the end result.

“I’ve always thought of it as a semi-sports event,” he says. “You have to be physical, you’ve got to be fast, you’ve got to be creative. A lot of artists don’t like working in those circumstances. I like pressure and I just like the instantaneousness, when you realize in 48 hours you’re going to make a 15-foot sculpture that looks like it’s been around for years. You get people saying ‘wow’ all the time.

“I like that part too.”