Crunch, crunch. Crunch, crunch. Crunch, crunch.
That’s the sound Simon Beck would hear for ten hours straight were it not for Beethoven. During the “snow art season”, or winter as we call it, the thickly accented, 56-year-old Brit walks about the distance of a marathon in snowshoes during each of his works, marking out massive geometric designs on flat snowy fields and frozen lakes the size of soccer fields, all while listening to classical music. When he finishes, he exits his track of imprints and hikes up to where he can view his design in its entirety. After taking a picture, he goes home to rest. It’s a long day, with no guarantee that the work will still be there, untouched, come morning — but this is inherent in snow art, a medium of design of which Beck is at the forefront. We sat down with the sinewy man himself to talk about what motivates his carefully planned marches, and what he sees as the future of snow art.
Q. What’s one thing every man should know?
A. A man should know his limits, as Clint Eastwood said. Yeah, you’ve got to judge when to stop. Quite a wise comment I think.
Q. What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever done?
A. Oh dear, oh dear. I suppose my university degree. It was engineering science at Oxford University. I wasn’t really interested in it. I went there knowing I didn’t want to.
Q. Did you go into engineering after you graduated?
A. Yeah, I got a job in an office, but I hadn’t learned a great deal at university other than how to pass exams, and I couldn’t keep my mind on my work.
Q. So what are you working on right now?
A. Really, I regard drawing as my job, so right now I am unemployed; I am not doing any drawings. Soon the snow art season will start, and I’ll start making drawings in the snow and try to get some good drawings and good photographs. I also have a book, which is just about ready to be released to the public.
I want to be the guy who lettered in snow art.
Q. How do you make a living from snow art?
A. Selling the photographs. Magazines buy it, and hopefully the book makes some money as well.
Q. Name one thing you can’t live without.
A. A bit of peace and quiet. When I’m making my drawings, I listen to classical music. I think it would drive me mad if I didn’t have some music to listen to.
Q. Beethoven, right?
A. Yeah, and Chopin, and Vivaldi, Bach. Other people listen to pop. I want to get away from that racket.
Q: Who or what influences you?
A: I think of Vincent Van Gogh a lot when I’m at work. I admire him partly because he was so talented, and partly because he worked so hard to try and get a drawing done every day. You know, some artists — and I’m happy to be told this is rubbish — they’ll say “I don’t feel like working today. Let’s do something else.” And Vincent, you know, tried to get one thing done a day — let’s really go for it. It’s like that when you’re working on the beach or in the snow. You’ve got to get it done. Once you’ve made a decision what to draw, you’ve got to get on with it, and you’ve got to really push yourself, and you treat it a bit like a sport event. You’ve got to get the right thing. You’ve got to get out and start at the right time and work into the evening, and at the end of the day, you know, you’ve got to know your limits and when to stop. If you push yourself a bit too hard, you might die of hypothermia if you can’t go back at the end of the day. It’s a dangerous place to be.
Q: How far away from warmth are you when you’re doing some of these drawings? How far is your trek home after you’re done?
A: The main problem is getting changed into your skiing gear after you’ve finished working. You get desperately cold getting your ski gear on. There’s been times I had to walk back because it was too difficult to get the ski gear on, and that takes something like 35, 40 minutes. Yeah, you just got to jog down a piece. If I can’t get the ski gear on, I will put on some running shoes that I’ve got with me, and it’s about 30 minutes of jogging in the woods. You can just be so careful, you know — minor accidents, and you’re going to die, basically.
Q. Name one thing no one knows about you.
A. One thing nobody knows about me. Oh, dear, what should I say in answer to that. The things I did when I was a kid. You know, I got totally lost when I was a kid on Long Hill on my seventh birthday, and I sort of ran around. I couldn’t climb over the barbwire fence to get out of the woods and just kept running around and getting wetter and wetter until they actually sent out to look for me and found me.
Q. It’s your last drink and meal on earth. What’ll it be?
A. I’d probably eat a whole chicken with nice chocolate and lemon meringue. Sweet stuff. And I’d drink, oh, probably port.
Q. If you could go back and tell your 16-year-old self something, what would you say?
A. Oh, definitely, that’s when it all went wrong for me. You do not have to go to the university that insists on the highest grades just so you can get those grades.
Q. How do you want to be remembered?
A. I want to be the guy who lettered in snow art. That’s my biggest chance in making my name on it. I would like to see it done all over the world by lots of people. There will come a point when I stop doing it and start teaching it. You know, I’m 56 years old now.
Q. Tell me about the first time that you designed something in the snow.
A. It was just after skiing one day, and I thought, oh, I can’t be bothered to go running. I was quite seriously into orienteering at that time — ten years ago. I thought I just wanted something that’s not too strenuous, and, well: “Let’s draw something with snow on a frozen lake just outside a building where I live.” And then it kicked off from there. It took a while because many people thought of me as a silly fool walking on the frozen lake. I mean, it’s quite safe for one person to walk on his own, but people always lie and say it’s dangerous — which, if they didn’t, then you’d get whole groups down there and standing in the same place, which isn’t safe. Five years after the first one I decided to quit serious orienteering, and I decided to make the snow drawing my main physical activity during the winter as a way of keeping fit and keeping in good shape, and build up a collection of photographs, and eventually be able to sell them and possibly make a book.
Q. Briefly, how do you make the measurements?
A. So you want to use a proper sighting compass, and basically, you draw the diagram on paper, and you treat it like an orienteering one. It’s so far in such a direction. Okay, you start at the middle, go 50 meters in this direction, and you determine your distance by pace counting. You determine your direction using your compass, and you make five lines out from the center, and then you’ve got a five-pointed star. And eventually when you want to do curved lines, you’ve got to do a bit of a judgment on curved lines, and it’s something you get better at with a little practice.
Q. Are you bothered by the temporary life of your projects?
A. No, no. Once I get the photograph the job’s done. It’s like a film set, you know, you shoot a movie, you’ve done the job, and at the end of the day, I mean, you want to make another drawing as soon as you can.
Q. You’ve stated that your snow drawings take about ten hours to complete. What are you thinking about while you walk for ten hours?
A. Yeah, it’s just boring. It’s plodding up and down and, you know, the shading is walking up and down backwards and forwards until you’ve shaded an area. Then you start new areas — go backwards and forwards and shade an area. I’m thinking, “This is boring.” I am thinking, “Okay, I’m halfway through it.” And when I get through it I’m frequently thinking, “Thank God, I’m finished.” Once I finish the measurement — the thinking part of it — I put on my personal stereo and listen to music and just get on and finish it. Yeah, I focus more on the music.
Q. So why geometric designs?
A. They look best, and they are probably the quickest and easiest to measure at the start. I mean, you know, cartooning — like with the Icebreaker drawing we did. I mean, that’s quite a lot of careful setting out and measuring. It’s different every time. So you’ve got to keep your focus throughout the day. I mean, a geometric thing — a lot of them — if it’s a six-fold symmetry, once you’ve done it once, you then just do the same thing starting out in a different direction, and a lot of the geometrical ones basically you’re following a very simple rule, repeating it again, and again, and again.
Q. If you could lay down a design anywhere, where would it be?
A. Well, given the right conditions, I would love to do one on the lawn outside the White House. But equally, Buckingham Palace Lawn in Britain. The lake in Central Park. I would love to do a big one there. Of course, you need an aircraft to get photographs. The Champ de Mars in Paris by the Eiffel Tower would be a fantastic place to do one. The flat areas in Yosemite are a possibility, and there’s some fantastic lakes here, there and everywhere. We could do drawings… you know, there’s so many possible answers to that question.
Simon Beck partnered with Icebreaker in the release of snow art inspired underwear, tops and hoodies featuring his geometric designs. His book of photography has also been released and is on sale here.