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Drip, drip, drip….and it’s gone

Temporary sculptures teach lessons
Shelley Column Pic
When snow sculptures melt away...

The elementary school I attended joined with other schools in the small city in building a snow sculpture for a school-wide competition. One of the grade 7 classrooms chose the theme for our school and they and their teacher got the process started.

Each recess we would race out to where the sculpture was being constructed to see the progress and find out if there were jobs we could help with. A large sculpture emerged wondrously from what started as a huge pile of snow. Dig out, scrape away, carve; each step shaping the snow into what became a big canoe with a larger-than-life man standing in the middle wielding a paddle.

I happened to be in Winnipeg one year just days after the Festival du Voyageur wrapped up. I had the privilege of getting a behind-the-scenes tour by someone who knew what went into making the many snow and ice sculptures that highlighted the festival. That day the city was experiencing unseasonably warm temperatures and you could see evidence of melting starting to occur. I felt sad for those who had toiled so diligently over these works of art, yet the truth is, snow and ice sculptors know their work is short term at best. Temporary. They spend hours conceiving, creating and carving pieces that will ultimately drip, plop and turn to puddles.

Snow and ice sculptures grab attention in winter months, and then sand structures take over. What artists are able to create on beaches around the world is stunning in size, detail and composition. In the same way, these builders create works soon to be swept away. Lost to the tides. Lost to the elements. Temporary in its presence. But perhaps this is where its impact truly is.

In 1817 Perry Bysshe Shelley wrote "Ozymandias" one of the most famous poems of the Romantic period, and likely Shelley's most-read work. The poem, written as part of a friendly writing challenge with his friend Horace Smith, was about the Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses II, a powerful ruler known for amassing military victories, accumulating great wealth, and building monuments to his success. But in the poem, Ozymandias, (the Greek name for him), is brought low by the poet, calling attention to remnants of his statues lying buried in the sand, forgotten. No matter how powerful, how influential, how revered the achievements might be, they are temporary at best.

In 2021 we watched many more ‘permanent’ statues come down in Canada, United States, Belgium, Portugal, France, Brazil and on it goes. They didn’t succumb to the ravages of time but instead a portion of the populace. Some were put in storage, others melted down to create new art, and many toppled. There were also new statues put in place honoring authors, world leaders, voting rights activists and athletes. The challenge with a statue is that it typically speaks to a movement, event or body of work, and while it made be deemed worthy in the moment, it often fails to take in a broader context that could one day raise ire. Time will tell how long these statues remain standing or if something emerges that makes them targets for removal. The power, fame or wealth that vaults them into a sphere of influence in one generation, could just as easily become a call to bring them down in another.

My school didn't win the competition. A few weeks later the entire thing melted away. While the building of it holds good memories, the fact that it was gone so quickly is, in retrospect, a good thing. The representation of the First Nations man standing in the canoe holding the paddle came from a novel study the grade 7 class was doing. It would not be an acceptable portrayal today since it called on the heavy use of stereotypes. It’s not that anyone was trying to be insensitive, it’s just that a better understanding has developed. A very different snow sculpture would be built today—as it should.

The impressive work done by those who know their efforts will all too quickly succumb to the elements can teach us something. Its value comes not from a desire to stand the test of time, but rather the achievement in the moment and the satisfaction of the effort it took to get there. That way, it can be appreciated in its time, and not be judged by a context in which it no longer fits. That’s my outlook.