Carving Their Niche

For 30 years, Donald Watt has made public art in the Yukon, not to mention elsewhere in Canada, the U.S., Europe and Asia.

A few weeks later, there’s no trace of it anywhere.

For nine of those years, Watt and fellow artists Mike Lane and Gisli Balzer have attracted like-minded artists to Whitehorse to do the same thing, as organizers of the Air Canada International Snow Carving Challenge.

Barring a sudden heat wave, this year’s art will be on display at Shipyards Park for awhile yet, as well as two pieces Watt and Lane created for the Arctic Winter Games.

Starting with uniform-sized blocks of snow 12′ x 10′, stomped by foot and shovel to a height of 8′, this year’s nine teams rendered a variety of intricately detailed works.

Adam Green’s Team Yukon depicted a 1942 military truck crashing through the river ice, while David MacNair’s Manitobans recreated The Cremation of Sam McGee next door.

The Finns had a frog on a clutch of eggs, beside an underwater scene by Team Japan. France produced a fanciful castle; Team Quebec did a weighty abstract.

The Alaskans had a fierce-looking owl capturing a rabbit, and the Michigan carvers portrayed the death of the rebel chief, Pontiac.

“Raven Steals the Moon” from the Canadian national competition in 2008 PHOTO: Provided by Donald Watt

Team B.C.’s pair of saucy ravens—”designed on the fly”, Watt says—swept the event’s honours, winning the judges’ choice, people’s choice and artists’ choice awards.

“By bringing in high-class, high-calibre carvers and showing off the work they do, I think snow carving has jumped a long way forward in Whitehorse and the Yukon,” Watts says.

“People know what real snow carving is all about, and it helps us.”

Watt’s first foray into sculpting snow came when a high school art teacher in Prince George, B.C. encouraged some of his more three-dimensionally inclined students to try some carving in the snow banks beside the school’s parking lot.

The next time Watt tried snow carving was after being in the Yukon for a few years, when he wanted to fly to Winnipeg to visit his then-wife and daughter.

“I didn’t have any cash to buy airline tickets, but Rendezvous was throwing this snow sculpture event, and they were offering 500 bucks to the winner,” he explains.

Convinced he could win, he booked a ticket on speculation.

“If I had lost, I would have been out, because I had no other way to generate that kind of money.”

He didn’t lose. And he didn’t lose again the next year.

He soon began entering the Quebec Winter Carnival snow carving competition with various partners, including Tanya Handley, Janet Moore, Alyx Jones, Nina Sutherland and Trevor Sellars, all of them paying their own fare to compete.

When Lane came on board about 15 years ago, the core of a permanent Yukon team was born.

A few years later, about the time Balzer became the third team member, they started making a name for themselves nationally and internationally as snow carving heavyweights.

By a Catch-22 in the snow-carving world, Watt explains, teams only get invited to compete internationally if they already have international carving experience.

After winning the national championships in Quebec, they went on to win the international competition there the next year. Team Yukon/Canada had its entrée to competitions abroad.

“Then we were away. We were off into Russia, we were off into France and Italy, Austria, Switzerland…

“Japan, China,” Lane pipes up during a break from working on a sculpture of two throat singers and a drummer at the Canada Games Centre.

“So when we started our own competition here, I made sure we had an international team in the line-up, which made our competition international,” Watt adds.

“Which means now that any of the teams that came to us could say they have carved internationally.”

The trio has also mentored a number of beginning Yukon carvers.

With the Air Canada challenge (which they organize, but don’t compete in), as well as an annual world tour, they have not only put Whitehorse on the international snow-carving map, they have represented the territory and Canada with distinction at numerous international events.

On this year’s tour, with Terry Gunderson as third team member in place of Balzer, they took top honours in two separate competitions in Italy, as well as the Japan Cup and the artists’ choice award in Nayoro, Japan.

“As Mike likes to say, we got three golds and a silver out of this tour. It was a good tour,” Watt says.

For more about Team Yukon/Canada, visit their website at and see our related Web Exclusive coverage at

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