If you ski along the dike pathway from downtown Dawson to the bridge over the Klondike River, you pass the landing pad for the local helicopter companies. It looks like a large, oval parking lot.
I skied this path out of town on a recent Sunday afternoon. On my way back, I saw a friend energetically shovelling snow off the cement.
Since Brett (name changed) doesn’t work there, I wondered what he was up to.
By the time I huffed halfway up the driveway, I started laughing.
Brett waved, came over and confirmed my suspicions. Yes, like a giant rabbit with a snow shovel instead of teeth, Brett had nibbled a chessboard pattern out of the fresh snowfall, puncturing the smooth, puffy surface into a pretty good grid.
He was now in the process of shovelling a maze-like pathway to get to the game board. Then, he said, he was going to sculpt chess pieces out of the snow.
I don’t know if he was pulling my leg about the chess pieces themselves – I suggested checker pieces would be easier to make with the powdery, non-sticking snow – but when I went home and passed my rusty Toyota pickup, the bumper sticker on the tailgate tugged on my attention.
The sticker has faded, but it still says “I’d Rather Be Snowshoveling.”
It’s a memory that one of the pickup’s former owners, Valerie Salez, started working in 2002 on a series of snow shovelling projects that included both ephemeral outdoor “sculptures” and a three-part video.
In early 2003, Salez and another former Whitehorse gal, Hannah Jickling, worked on the project together at an artist residency in Dawson. (It’s not clear to me how long Jickling was involved, but their names are together on some 2004 postcards from the project.)
Solo, Salez has taken the project to Montreal’s Nuit Blanche, Saskatoon’s SPASM Festival (both in 2005) and other venues.
Before-and-after photos from I’d Rather Be Snow Shoveling are still scattered on the internet. Through the project, the simple act of snow removal became art by sculpting the immediate, temporary space around them.
For example, a long, rounded lump is uncovered by lightly shovelled strips until it shows up as a park bench. A stairway is turned into a checkerboard. Or, working with accumulation instead of snow removal, a 2004 postcard shows how Jickling and Salez formed a peak in a flat front yard to mimic the peak of the cabin in the background.
I like the questions that come out of these images. Does an artist need special tools, or is art-making about the mind and eye more than about the materials?
Can art be fun and philosophical at the same time? Can it be outdoors, existing only in one area (site-specific) and for only a short period of time, the way the light on the trees exists in that exact shade of pale bright only for this morning, and will be different tomorrow?
I say yes to all this. Live music is temporary and disappears from the air after the guitarist/violinist/drummer puts their instrument back in its case. Time-based art like snow-shovelled patterns vanishes with the next snowfall, or the next temperature change.
The other reason to mention Salez, though, is that she has gone on to make many other kinds of sculpture, installation and relational artworks. Her exhibition Fourth Nature is at the Yukon Arts Centre until just before Christmas, and you can read Nicole Bauberger’s review on page 20.
As for Brett, it kept snowing after Sunday and Monday. I went back on Tuesday to see if he had finished his own art-of-the-flake project. Looks like he changed his mind partway through and covered the whole landing pad with curling sheet markings, centre line, hog line and all.
Next time it snows like this, I’m offering my driveway for Brett’s contemplation.