Carving snow

Snow carver Jay Ray and his Pegasus sculpture won the MBA’s 2021 snow sculpture contest.

Nancy Edmonds Hanson

For the other 358 days of the year, Mike Nelson and Josh Zeis shape concrete countertops and benches, while Jay Ray remodels homes and carves logs with a chainsaw. But for one week on the past half dozen calendars, they have turned their talents to the most fleeting of art forms – snow.

Since the beginning of the Moorhead Business Association’s snow sculpture contest seven years ago, the three have been learning the intricacies of carving snow. They have traded first place back and forth in the annual Frostival contest’s masters division.

But now the friendly rivals are teaming up to take what they’ve learned to the national level. They’ve been invited to compete in the U.S. National Snow Sculpting Contest Feb. 2-6 in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. It’s a feature of Winterfest in the resort town on the west shore of Lake Michigan; the event draws some 60,000 visitors each year.

The MBA-bred teammates will join 14 other state-champion teams as the first Team North Dakota in the 27-year-old competition’s history. “Since there isn’t a state snow sculpture contest in the Dakotas, they approached me to put a team together,” Ray reports. He was contacted through a social media group on snow carving after they saw posts about his 10-foot-tall Pegasus, which won top honors in the MBA’s 2021 contest.

Ray reached out to the SnoKraft team, with whom he’s traded the trophy in recent years. Zeis and Nelson, along with teammate David Swenson, readily agreed. The three (minus Swenson, who lives in Minnesota) will spend an all-expense-paid sojourn in ritzy Lake Geneva competing against the likes of Alaska, Vermont, New Hampshire … and Florida? “There’s a lot of sand carvers down there,” Nelson explains.

Like that subtropical team, both Ray and the SnoKraft guys have honed their 3-D skills on materials both more permanent and more malleable than snowdrifts. Nelson and Zeis are both professional artists, working in paints and ceramics. Nelson says the commercial projects they create in their business, Mothership Workshop, bear some resemblance to working with snow. “The clock is ticking as soon as the concrete is poured,” he says. “You have to work quickly.”

When Ray carves logs into fanciful creations, he has no time constraints – just the surprises that linger inside tree trunks, like knots and rotten spots. Moreover, he gets to use a chainsaw. Snow contests, on the other hand, require a more delicate touch. Only hand tools are allowed.

Both Nelson and Ray are looking forward to working with the 10-foot-tall cylinder of man-made snow that will await them in Lake Geneva. Unlike the 10-by-10-foot cubes each team tackles in the Moorhead competition, the national contest’s round shape – with an 8-foot diameter – offers a variety of angles for the Viking sea dragon design they submitted as their entry.

The master carvers are excited about the prospect of working with man-made snow at home, too, at the Frostival contest Jan. 29, one week before the national event. For the first time, the MBA expects to provide entrants with output from massive snow hoses like those used at ski resorts. All-Finish Concrete of West Fargo plans to donate the raw material, using the same equipment employed for sno-cross racing at the Red River Valley Fairgrounds.

One might think that Mother Nature would provide more than enough white stuff. One would be wrong. After last year, when a warm, dry winter made the pickings extraordinarily slim, the sculpting teams have grown to appreciate the perfect, even crystals generated by mechanical means – without the blemishes inherent in parking-lot scrapings. “All the expert carvers say the difference is like night and day,” Ray says. “Man-made snow is like carving a soft marble block. It’s going to be fun.”

As long as the temperature cooperates, that is: “Anything below 20 degrees is perfect.”

Ray estimates his annual entries in Moorhead require at least 40 hours of hand labor. The SnoKraft team’s estimate is even higher – up to 100 hours split among the three men. So why would busy professionals invest that kind of time in an art form that’s guaranteed to fade away during the next warm spell?

“It gives us an opportunity to work at large scale in a public setting,” Nelson explains. “People can watch our sculpture come up from nothing, and then go back to nothing.

“Snow carving is a wonderful reminder that change is inevitable and impermanence can be liberating. It keeps us grounded.”

The MBA contest – dubbed “Fargo Escapes (to Moorhead)” in honor of its main sponsor – is accepting entries in the master and community divisions through Jan. 7. The event takes place Jan. 29. For more information, visit 

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