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Team ND Snow Sculpting pictured with the winning sculptures from various US National and local competitions
   L to R: "SnowKraft" - 2022 US Nationals; "Nemean Lion" - 2023 US Nationals; "Say When" - 2022 Frostival


Fargo artists Mike Nelson, Josh Zeis, and Jay Ray (left to right in 2022 US Nationals photo above) competed head-to-head against each other at the annual Frostival Snow Sculpture Competition in Moorhead, MN, before coming together to form Team ND Snow Sculpting. The group competed in the U.S. National Snow Sculpting Competition in Lake Geneva, WI, for the past two years, taking 3rd place in 2022 and 1st place in 2023. Among other competitions in 2024, the team will compete in the World Snow Sculpting Championship in Stillwater, MN, January 17-21, and will defend their national title in Lake Geneva, WI, January 31-Feruary 3.

Team ND Snow Sculpting standing with a 10 foot Santa sculpture made for the 2023 Bismarck Santa Run
           by Jaime Lawler Photography

Team ND Snow Sculpting traveled to Bismarck in December 2023 to create a snow sculpture in commemoration of the 10th anniversary of the Santa Run, a 5K charity event created to raise awareness of addiction issues. After unveiling the Santa sculpture (left), “Chris Kringle’s Jingle Joggers,” Josh, Jay, and Mike gave a presentation at the ND Heritage Center. The artists explained the reductive process, displayed their custom-made tools, showed samples of their work, and shared what they have learned about carving snow in constantly changing weather conditions.

Rather than rolling snowballs to create a snowman, Josh said to use the reductive process: fill a large container with snow, stomp it down to compact it, dump it out, and then carve out the snowman. Snow sculpting uses that same process, but on a much larger scale. During national competitions, every team is given a block of snow as large as 6-15 feet on each side. Concrete forms are used to compress the snow and are removed as soon as possible so the carving can begin. 

hand-made snow sculpting toolsTeam Captain Jay Ray – who Josh calls “the chainsaw guy” because Jay is also skilled in carving sculptures out of wood – custom-made the snow carving tools that the team prefers to use. Some of their tools are extremely sharp and others offer a unique angle that is hard to achieve when carving from certain positions. Josh said, “I have never used a power tool [to carve snow.] I don’t know what I would use.” Mike said they have become so efficient with their custom hand tools that “power tools might even slow them down.”

Prior to every competition, the team sketches out a few ideas. Then the chosen design is drawn with more detail at a scaled-down, proportionate size. When they get on site, it’s just a matter of tranferring their design from the small scale drawing to the large block of snow. The team admitted they were not very  good when they started, but they got better with practice. After working with different tools and under a variety of weather conditions, they learned what worked best.

10x10 framed box with snow inside, completed covered by plastic tarps with a man standing on top with his arms outstretchedTeam ND Snow Sculpting is working on a sculpture in the pitch-black night because it was too warm to carve during the dayFor example, the weather in the days prior to the Santa Run in Bismarck was very challenging. There was no snow on the ground, so it had to be made and delivered by Huff Hills Ski Area. The team assembled the concrete forms and the snow was dumped inside and compacted as much as possible. To help with the process, Bobcat of Mandan donated the use of a new snowblower that was able to chop up and better direct the manmade snow into tight corners. But then the sun came out. Temperatures rose into the upper 40s during the day and barely got to freezing at night. So instead of carving during the daylight, the team had to wrap the block of snow with plastic tarps to keep it from melting and do their carving at night. On the day before the unveiling, it started raining before turning to snow showers! Because the snow was compacted tightly and covered with plastic, the sculpture survived the week of unseasonal conditions. Large Santa Claus snow sculpture with blue and pink lights projected onto it

Another problem caused by warm temperatures is that the snow becomes slushy, making it difficult to carve fine details into sculptures. Mike explained, “We want the snow to be dense and icy. The harder the snow, the more detailed we can be.” The team also learned that the sun melts color-dyed snow faster than natural snow so they often project colored lights onto the sculpture instead of dying the snow.

The team said snow sculpting is fun and rewarding, but it is also physically hard work. It comes with long and odd hours, cold conditions, and often uncomfortable carving positions that the sculptors must hold for long periods of time. Though Josh, Jay, and Mike have no plans to retire anytime soon, it is their goal to train and recruit new artists who share their passion so they can eventually pass the chisel on to the next generation.


More information about the team, including photos of previous snow sculptures and upcoming events, can be found on their NDsnowsculpting.com website and on their Mothership Workshop Instagram account.

Funding for the Santa Run sculpture created by Team ND Snow Sculpting was made possible with a Community Arts Access grant from North Dakota Council on the Arts.

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