Familiar textured snowshoe tracks leave intricate, almost filigree shadows on a pristine slope in the French winter slopes. The pattern they leave evokes a mystery – who left these here? And invite the viewer to contemplate them amid the quiet winter’s day. Sometime in the last 48 hours, a lone snowshoer has been out since before sunrise, leaving tracks in the snow that remind one of crop circles, and just as massive, covering an area roughly the size of several football fields. There is no sign of the artist.
Since 2004 in Les Arcs France at Arc2000, dozens of geometric patterns began to appear each winter with the first snowfall. The designs range from purely geometric shapes to architectural references, and are laid down with focused concentration, taking as long as two days to complete at times, by one man, 54-year-old snowshoe artist, Simon Beck, of England.
Beck’s first snow art — a five-pointed star joined by circles — was apparently done sans snowshoes. He so liked the look of it that he tried a ten pointed star next. But that was such “hard work,” he decided it would be easier to do on snowshoes. When he discovered a lake nearby, and started playing with patterns and evolving techniques that made the process easier over time, Beck’s solitary efforts took on a quality which is recognized as true art today.
Beck designs on lake beds and pristine mountain slopes, are weather and avalanche dependent, and completed in anywhere from six hours to two days.
In an unusual mixture of skill sets, Beck’s map making skills and competitive orienteering in the off-season informed his current process from planning to completion, of these mammoth icons of environmental winter art.
In 2004 he had to back off from orienteering due to a serious injury to both his feet. He discovered that snowshoeing avoids too much “…load on the front of the foot,” where the injuries are. And it followed that buying a condo on the mountain where he can “walk out the door to the slopes” made sense. “If you own an apartment and have a season ticket,” he said, he could afford the new lifestyle. “I do quite a lot of skiing too. I just like being in the mountains.”
But Beck noted this was a rather radical change in his lifestyle at the time as he “… didn’t learn to ski until I was 44.” He simply could not afford the lifestyle without selling his house in England first. As for snowshoeing, “When I started out doing it, it was just a bit of fun in the evening.”
Beck is in superb shape from competition orienteering and also spends a lot of time hiking and running through the mountains when he is not working as a map maker during the summer.
It is also during the summer when he spends time drawing and preparing designs, so he can get out and start making tracks as soon as he returns to his condo at Arc2000.
“I usually see a drawing and think, let’s do that in snow …so they are not all original designs. The designs,” he said, are a means to an end. On the slope, “I see what direction the sun which way to walk to get the greatest contrast…The key thing is to get photos,” Beck said. And only “…about a quarter [he shoots are] good photograph[s].” This year, he has invested in a Nikon D7000 for higher resolution images.
“The first snow is ideal,” he noted, as he prefers four to six inches of snow. Any deeper and he sinks in and its “harder to walk. It takes longer, and I get tired sooner.” He prefers using TSL snowshoes, the thirty inch-size. “They feel about right for doing snow art. There have been very few occasions when I’ve sunk in too far [on smaller ones].”
Being a map surveyor comes in handy in marking and laying out the design before he begins. “The setting out is done using handheld orienteering compass and distance determination [is done] using pace counting or measuring tape. Curves are either judged, or arcs of circle [drawn] using a clothes line attached to an anchor at the center,” Beck explains on his Facebook page.
“This can take 25 percent of the total time.”
He prefers frozen lakes, of which there are several to choose from at Arc2000, but until the ice is thick enough to walk on, he has plenty of mountain slopes to choose from.
In the beginning when Beck was on his own, and “…started noticing what direction the sun was shining from affected which direction to walk to get the greatest contrast,” he learned to choose a site for a design with consideration of the angle and direction of the sun for the photographs.
And, he needs a location that is likely to remain pristine – a least until the image is taken. Les Arcs provides enough space to keep him busy with “about twelve” pieces a year, through the spring.
Once a site is chosen, he starts the day early. “I do assessing of conditions” and stays off the slopes on “days of avalanches. I can’t actually get to a site until it is safe.” Beck said the length of time to complete one design can be as long as two eight-hour days.
During the process of tramping out the snowshoe design, “I try not to think about things as it is too easy to make a mistake.”
But, Beck said, “Once the lines are drawn …it is just a matter of filling in …[then] I listen to [classical] music,” Beck described. “Most of my thoughts [are] fantasizing …where new ski lifts might be built, where the high-speed railway lines should be routed, how the road up to the resort should have been aligned and, naturally, bigger and better snow drawings!”
Beck claims to be “… a bit of loner so being on my own …” is natural. I am quite accustomed to pain and exhaustion.”
But there are extreme hazards, and Becks said he is very aware that he often works on his art after the lifts close. “Mountains are dangerous [and] once the ski runs are shut, you are on own.”
He said, one can “…very suddenly become exhausted. It’s like hitting a wall — you suddenly run out of steam. You need to have both food and warm clothing with you.” When enough is enough “…is a matter of making a judgment call [one is] too tired and too cold and cannot make it back home.” He said even “…just the process of putting on warm clothes” when he stops can put him over the edge.
“…Once I got really cold when I was getting changed and I couldn’t get my boots on properly. I was really lucky I was only a quarter of an hour from home.” He admits it would “…obviously … be safer with two people so one can go for help.” At some point, Beck would like to include an assistant if funding becomes available.
He does not often come back the next day to complete a design because conditions are rarely the same, but Beck recently completed ‘Waterbowl29’ [“… the 29th drawing done in the water bowl”], and “It took two days, about 16 hours…”
In contrast, “The ‘StJacques14’ […because it is in the flat area under the St Jacques lift] … took about 6 hours … [completed Nov. 8].”
“It’s all about a good image and good contrast. The shadow is what really makes the design…the direction the sun is and which way to walk to get the greatest contrast…” Beck emphasized.
He said his fame spread mainly “due to the internet” and his Facebook page [Simon Beck’s Snow Art]. “It is [considered] art now.”
In October, Beck was given the Most Extreme Art award by the Society of Unique Artists for his snowshoe art, in New York City where he attended with his mother.
He said he done several logos for snowshoe companies like Tubbs, but admits, as an artist, there is a “bit of an issue” doing advertising on mountain snow. “I am not sure where to enough is enough for advertising like actually doing text in an [advertisement],” he mused.
Another dream is to “… get some really good equipment and lights to take pictures at night. I want to time-lapse photography of me actually creating … I’ve had lots of requests …”
Beck said where “I’d like to go most is the North of Norway in Sammi country …where there are big sites and low sunlight that brings out the contrast,” Beck muses. “With some really good equipment and given an unlimited budget, the long exposure of northern light – the sunlight in Scandinavia — makes it extremely attractive.”
Beck said he would like to put together a book of the images he is currently making. This winter, he expects to get higher quality images and to get acquainted with his new camera, do some skiing and continue making snowshoe art at Arc2000.
To see more of Simon Beck’s snowshoe art, go to: https://www.facebook.com/snowart8848?fref=ts.