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Yukon’s snowmen enjoy a cold beverage after taking five carving titles

I entered the meeting room to interview the Yukon’s champion snow-carving team just as sculptor Donald Watt plunked a six-pack of Chilkoot…

I entered the meeting room to interview the Yukon’s champion snow-carving team just as sculptor Donald Watt plunked a six-pack of Chilkoot Light on the table.

It was noon on a weekday.

“Interview!?!” said Watt in mock surprise. “I thought you said ‘Bring the brew.’”

That comment set the tone for the rest of the conversation. 

The three-person team — made up of Watt, Mike Lane and Gisli Balzer — were in good spirits despite having just finished a two-month whirlwind carving tour, then coming home to Whitehorse to co-ordinate the snow-carving event that took centre stage at Shipyards Park during Rendezvous last weekend.

“I haven’t even come down yet,” said Watt as he cracked a beer.

Lane grabbed and opened a can for himself, which immediately erupted into a puddle of white foam.

“Oh, you got the one I shook,” said Watt with a sly smile.

The three carvers have been working as a team since 2000, and over the years the trio has developed a style that has earned them armloads of awards around the globe from China to Colorado.

And earlier this month the team arrived home with $100 in extra baggage charges because of the four trophies — and five titles — earned in Italy, Colorado and Quebec City.

“First-second-second-first-first — we did good on the podium,” said Balzer.

What is it about their sculptures that make them stand out from the crowd? 

“It’s how much weight we throw around,” said Balzer. “This year we made a sculpture where we had a seven-tonne wolf standing on just really spindly legs — the judges see that and they’re like ‘Holy shit!’

“In every sculpture there’s something we do with hanging weight that not many other teams will even get close to trying.”

They stick to the Yukon-themed subject matter, and carve a completely different sculpture for each competition they enter.

They’ve got their technique down pat.

Each piece starts as a rough drawing.

Then either Watt or Balzer will take the drawing and turn it into what’s called a maquette — a small scale model they use as a blueprint for the finished work.

While Watt makes his out of bent wire and papier-mâché or rigid foam, Balzer prefers to use clay or Plasticine.

“Mine don’t travel well,” said Balzer. 

So what does he do when they arrive at a competition and their model’s been destroyed in transit?

“Spend the evening in the hotel room with a bunch of beer fixing it.”

While those two are occupied making and fixing the maquettes, Lane is busy at the work that makes their international jaunts possible — what Watt calls “shaking hands and raising money.”

It takes the team about three days to go from a block of packed snow to a honed sculpture.

Watt makes the first cuts into the block of snow, hacking out the general forms.

“I just try to remove as much of the negative space as I can and still leave the roughed general shapes of what we’re after,” he explained.

Next, Lane takes over to define those shapes into distinguishable forms such as swans, fish, Eskimo shaman or giant babies, depending on what they’ve chosen to sculpt.

Finally, with a sharp chisel and cold feet, Balzer stands in the same spot for hours crafting the intricate details on the surface of the sculpture.

“Those are the things that just make it jump out at you,” said Lane. “And you say, ‘Oh, wow!’”

Sometimes, after those long, hard days of work, the team has to watch as weather destroys their work more quickly than it was created.

“It’s an art form that starts deteriorating as soon as we stop working on it,” said Watt. And that’s something the team doesn’t exactly get sentimental about.

“I have 20 seconds of appreciation right after I’m done, and then I want nothing to do with the goddamned sculpture ever again,” said Balzer.

“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, snow to snow,” added Lane.

Despite the transient nature of their pieces, the carvers are in no hurry to switch mediums.

“I will always go back to snow,” said Watt. “It’s something we can feel proud of and we don’t have to sell it, and we don’t have to store it; it just recycles.

“In three to four days you can do a monumental piece of artwork.”

“It would take three to four years to do the same stuff in stone,” added Balzer.

Over the years they’ve found that snow carving is a weighty business to be in.

The team travels with a 22.5-kilogram carving toolkit with chisels of all sizes, ice-carving saws, and a variety of found objects such as trowels, paint scrapers, ice chippers, and cheese graters for the fine sanding.

And the gear they need to stay outside in cold weather for entire days, and sometimes entire nights, can be cumbersome to tote from country to country.

“Our boots all weigh like 15 pounds each,” said Balzer.

“Oh, yeah and our jackets are heavy and all the bottles of wine we bring back,” said Lane. “God, I mean it all adds up.”

Fueled with a grant from the Yukon Arts Fund, and support from the city, Air Canada and the Whitehorse community, the team has managed to break even this year.

It doesn’t happen often.

Although many of their expenses are covered while they are on tour, they don’t earn any income from the carving.

“I figured out that since I started carving nine years ago, I’ve lost out on a complete year of pay,” said Lane. “It’s crazy, and I had a really fun time when I got back to town — they cut off my electricity when I was gone.”

The group plans to spend the spring and summer working their day jobs and planning next year’s tour.

Their goal for 2009 is to once again claim the Canadian snow carving title in Quebec and be invited to carve at the Olympics in Vancouver in 2010.

“If we can’t outdo ourselves every year then we’re not trying hand enough,” said Balzer. “That’s why were out there — to