A drawing scrawled in chalk on the face of a cliff that melts away with the next rainstorm. Flowers perfectly arranged according to ancient principles of design that sag and rot a few days later. Brightly colored sand mandalas that are blown away the instant they are completed. These are a few examples of ephemeral art.
This type of art, which lasts only for a short time, is a form of human expression that has been practiced throughout history. Of course, nothing lasts forever, and even the magnificent marble statues of the ancient Greeks are largely lost to us, worn down by centuries of exposure to the elements. But art of the truly fleeting kind seems to speak to something particular in our nature as humans.
Tom Queoff is a classically trained sculptor, with a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degree from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. At one time, he headed the sculpture department at Cardinal Stritch College near Milwaukee. Since 1978, he has run the Tom Queoff Sculpture Studio in Milwaukee, specializing in commissioned pieces cast in bronze, carved in wood and stone, or wrought from steel.
Snow sculpture was a world Queoff knew nothing about until 1985, when he was asked to judge the first U.S. National Snow Sculpting Competition and realized that the art form was much more than the building of oversized snowmen. Snow sculpting is both physically and mentally arduous. Only the most talented succeed.
For those who compete in the medium, it is serious stuff with high-stakes competitions all over the world. After his experience judging, Queoff was drawn in. He started snow sculpting and hasn’t stopped. A founding member of the U.S. National Snow Sculpting team, he won a bronze medal at the 1998 winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan. To date, Queoff – together with his teammates Mike Martino and Mike Sponholtz – has made more than 200 major snow sculptures throughout the world.
The elegant large-scale bronze cast sculptures that Queoff creates in his studio will grace city plazas and building lobbies for years and years to come. Every day passersby will look at his work. For most artists, the knowledge that their art will outlive them is the most satisfying payoff in a profession that has never been considered a road to riches.
Unlike those regal bronze figures, snow sculptures are fleeting, if no less difficult to sculpt. Depending on the weather, a 10-foot-by-10-foot snow sculpture that takes Queoff three days to create may be gone forever in another three days.
So what motivates him to create these glistening ephemeral beauties?
In sculpting snow, Queoff is made acutely aware of man’s deep connection to the natural world. “Driving down the highway, you see overhangs of snow that you think are almost impossible,” said Queoff, and an idea comes. In “The Elders,” a piece Queoff did for the 1999 World Championship in Kiruna, Sweden, for which he took third place, four graceful figures seem to rise organically from the snowy ground in a huddle that suggests the guarding of ancient secrets. Fluid lines carved into the figures are reminiscent of tall drifts whipped by the wind.
“I learn a lot just from watching nature. It’s true with all of the arts. If you’re a musician you listen to the birds. For a sculptor, if you don’t see what’s in nature, you’re not telling people the truth,” he commented.
If the work of Mother Nature herself inspires Queoff’s art, how does he feel when she quickly destroys it? This issue is nothing to the opportunity snow sculpting affords him. The chance to work on such a large scale is the reward.
He stated: “The pleasure for us is in the doing it and the challenge of trying to create …
“Sculpture like that … is monumental.… If you are a commission sculptor like me, to get a bronze sculpture like that, maybe you get a half dozen in your life. But with snow you can do a half dozen in a year. … You can get really a lot of your creativity … put out in snow.”
For Queoff, snow sculpting is worth every laborious moment. He isn’t the only one who feels that way.