Tom Queoff, a sculptor who works in stone, steel and bronze, was asked to judge a Milwaukee snow-sculpting competition in 1985.
"As I walked around, I was in awe," he said. "The sculptures were beautiful, and the process was intriguing. I decided I'd like to try it."
The Milwaukee artist did more than give it a try. He and his team have gone on to win seven international snow-sculpting championships and many more national and local awards.
It's not surprising that a Milwaukee sculptor has won international acclaim. Southeastern Wisconsin is a mecca for snow sculpting, in part because of the efforts of Don Berg, a Milwaukee-area sculptor whom many consider the grandfather of snow sculpting.
He has organized sculpting competitions around the world, from the Winter Olympics to Wisconsin events in Racine, Lake Geneva and Kohler. Queoff has participated in many of them.
"We have some of the best sculptors in the world right here," Berg said. "And some of the best events."
Most are close enough for a day trip from the Chicago area. But if you choose to make a weekend of it, there is plenty to do nearby as the sculptures take form.
The first event of the year is Racine's Big Chill competition Jan. 11-13 at Monument Square in downtown Racine, just 25 miles north of the Wisconsin line. Formerly part of the Flake Out Festival at the Wisconsin Dells, the juried competition moved to Racine four years ago.
"Sixteen teams from all around the state will compete in Racine to determine who represents Wisconsin at the national level," said Devin Sutherland, executive director of the Downtown Racine Corp. "It's fascinating to see the sculptures go from a compacted block of snow to something that is intricate and ornate in just a couple of days."
Within walking distance of the Racine competition are more than 50 boutiques and shops and 40 or so restaurants, many of them with ethnic menus, including Armenian, Spanish, Japanese, Korean and Thai. At the nearby Racine Art Museum, current exhibitions include an exploration of contemporary glass jewelry and artists' interpretations of James Joyce.
The Winterfest Celebration in Kohler Jan. 25-27 is a weekend of outdoor activities that includes snow-sculpting demonstrations by internationally known artists. Kohler is about an hour north of Milwaukee.
The event was expanded from one day to two this year and includes dog-sled and curling demonstrations, horse-drawn carriage rides, ice skating and yoga on the lake.
Indoors at the nearby Kohler Design Center, a Winterfest Market and hands-on science fun for kids are planned. Many of the events help raise money for the Above & Beyond Children's Museum in Sheboygan.
"Adults and children alike will enjoy the collection of outdoor and indoor activities," said Tricia Rathermel, special-events manager for Kohler Corp.'s Hospitality Group.
The Snow Sculpting Nationals, considered Wisconsin's most significant sculpting event, are part of Lake Geneva's Winterfest Jan. 30 to Feb. 3. Teams work on their sculptures from 9 a.m. well into the night on the days preceding judging, which is Saturday. Awards are presented at 3 p.m.
"Every year we have the best teams from as far away as Alaska, Maine, Idaho, New Hampshire and, of course, the Wisconsin champions, competing to see who will represent the U.S. in international competition," said George Hennerley, president of the Lake Geneva Area Chamber of Commerce and Convention and Visitors Bureau. "As the artists work, visitors can see how it's done and ask questions. It's fun to interact."
The event is held at Riviera Park in downtown Lake Geneva, where visitors can shop and warm up as retailers serve cookies and hot drinks. On the same weekend, the Grand Geneva Resort holds its Winter Carnival, with a torchlight parade down the ski hill and fireworks set to music.
"If you've never seen snow sculpting, you will be amazed," Hennerley said. "It's a very surreal type of art. The sculptures are huge, as tall as 14 feet, and they look like they are made of Carrara marble. It's like nothing you've ever seen."
The Big Chill Ice and Snow Festival in Racine, racinedowntown.com; Winterfest Celebration in Kohler, americanclubresort.com; Winterfest at Lake Geneva, lakegenevawi.com or usnationals.org.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun