Interview: Snowshoe Artist Simon Beck

A mastermind of ephemeral works on imagination, planning and creation

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With snow-covered terrain as the canvas, artist Simon Beck snowshoes mind-boggling geometric art into the surface. Beck is a master of ephemeral murals, and his process is one of calculation and patience with each step as a stroke in the bigger picture. It’s almost impossible to convey the magnificence—though photographs hint at it. These are artworks worth seeking out in person. This past March, Beck returned to Utah’s Powder Mountain. There, as Summit‘s artist-in-residence, he created one of his largest works to date (perhaps only rivaled by his work there the previous year). Far from his home in Les Arcs, Switzerland, Beck and a team of volunteers intricately stepped across the landscape and produced a piece that will never be seen as it was again. Photographs remain, of course, but to further understand Beck’s process and motivations we spoke with the artist himself. Winter may finally be gone in the Northern Hemisphere, but Beck’s work—and thoughts on art—may make you long for a return to ski season.

When approaching a new project, where does the artistic inspiration come from? Is it a shape or a curve or line? Is it a vision of a completed project or a part of it?

Usually it is a pattern I have seen, and most likely, a graphic on the web. There are many such shapes I would like to draw, and now that I do it “professionally” I can justify spending more time on the initial careful measuring process and attempt more complicated drawings. In days gone by, the design was chosen for the ease and speed of the initial measuring stage.

It would be good to make more complex drawings, but often it is a race to get it finished before the next bad weather comes in, so one has a trade-off between size of drawing and complexity. In practice, most of the inspiration is a long-standing “wish list” and I make a decision based on how much time is available, what volunteers are available, and the limitations imposed by the site.

How does the land the art falls upon act as an inspiration? Does one destination lend itself to a specific type of design?

Well, one can argue that the art should reflect the surroundings and equally some would argue that it should contrast. I suspect a lot of artists just make what they want, then invent an argument to justify it. In practice the decision on what to draw is more the result of the process implied in the previous answer, for one thing It is often not possible to visit the site until the drawing is about to be made, and many drawings can only be seen properly from the air.

One could fly a drone and choose a location (when a choice is available) but not only would it waste part of a day that could be used for drawing, but one could later find a reason why the site was unsuitable (someone might drive a snowmobile, or ski through it), most often the decision process is something along the lines of, “Thank God the weather has improved and let’s get as much of the main lines drawn as soon as we can, so there is some easy shading for volunteers to do when they show up and we can get it reasonably close to finished before it clouds over and if it stays fine longer then add more details around the edge of each mural.”

This is one of your largest works to date. Why now and why here?

The compass we drew this year about a half mile from the village was 250m across, although I had some help. I think the 2016 drawing was slightly larger and surely more man-hours went into it. The opportunity to make a really big drawing does not come often, usually there are not many volunteers who can come help when needed or there isn’t a big enough site. Therefore the policy is to make the biggest drawing that the constraints will allow.

Can you talk about how you’ve approach each year of the Summit artist-in-residence program differently?

This year the visit was delayed as I shuffled my schedule around to accommodate a postponement. The occasional crowds of local helpers and large snow fields is perhaps the key attraction of the Summit artist-in-residence program each year, but many times people underestimate the amount of time and dedication required to complete a mural. It is often the case that helpers and assistants can only endure a few hours snowshoeing and then head back to the lodge. So now my approach is to put the main framework of each drawing and then add to the drawing with the assistance from available volunteers in a manner that keeps it symmetrical.

You work in the ephemeral. Do you ever want to hold onto one of your art pieces?

There are a few that I have drawn multiple times, as I want to see them again. But essentially it is a photography thing. Yes, it would be good to see them become more permanent, for example I would like to see some of them printed on large canvases and hung up in the resort in France where I live.

Can you talk about obstacles you may have faced during the creation process?

The whole big problem with anything that is dependent on the weather is that getting a good result implies waiting until the time is right then going all out whatever the time of day. Of course this plays havoc with the concept of involving volunteers, one just makes the best plans possible then the result becomes a function of how many willing volunteers show up, and what (if any) problems are encountered with tracks through the site, and of course will the drone fly depending on weather, etc.

When you are thousands of steps into making a piece, where is your mind?

Once the thinking part has been completed the remaining process is a matter of shading the areas that need to be shaded. This is a highly tedious process, so I listen to music on my personal stereo, much as I think others would. So the mind is on Cloud nine listening to the music with a few brain cells keeping a grip on where I am and what should be done next. It is often best to go on a “safari” for the first hour or two of shading, shading the first two laps of the large areas that need to be shaded, and filling in small areas here and there, focussing on anything that might be likely to be missed out. (It is really annoying to climb to a viewpoint thinking one has finished, then spot an unshaded area). I get bored when I spend too long working in the same part of a drawing, and a safari is less boring as less time is spent in the same part of the drawing, Also one moves round faster and it keeps it more symmetrical, and allows me to give the previous stage, the drawing of the lines, a good inspection and check for any details missed.

Additional reporting by David Graver

Body images courtesy of Colton Edwards, slideshow images courtesy of Mashall Birnbaum