SUNDRE – While bringing home an international title would certainly have been the icing on the cake, the leader of a team of sculptors who recently returned from a snow sculpting festival in the U.S. nevertheless beamed with enthusiasm when recalling his experience.
“It’s just a whole lot of fun, is what it’s all about,” said Sundre-area artist Morton Burke. “That’s mostly what is the impetus to participate in these things, is that they’re a whole lot of fun.”
And as an added bonus along the way, both participants and spectators also get an opportunity to build cultural bridges, meet new people and maybe even learn a couple of news words in another language while developing a further appreciation of art, he said.
Burke, who is also the curator of the Bergen Rocks International Sculpture Park on a rural property southwest of town, was joined in Minnesota by Christian Denis and Will Truchon – both from Edmonton – for the World Snow Sculpture Championships that were held Jan. 18-22 in Stillwater.
The three are all members of an international group called the Atti2ude Club, Burke said during a Jan. 24 phone interview.
No stranger to the scene of international art competitions, the quality of Burke’s sculptures has built up something of a reputation. That resume, so to speak, quickly got his application to compete in the championship approved.
“They choose you based on your history,” he said.
Burke then approached Denis and Truchon to see if they’d be interesting in forming a team.
“They were over the moon,” he said, adding they didn’t hesitate to jump at the chance to go. “I think they thought that was a pretty good deal.”
The creatively inclined trio of artists were one of three Canadian teams that competed against an international pool of talent that overall comprised of 12 teams, including the Canucks. There were also two teams from the U.S., including the hometown Minnesota artists who were named world champions, as well as groups from Germany, Finland, Argentina, Ecuador, Turkey and Mexico.
“It was fantastic,” Burke said about the event, praising the organizers.
“They know how to do it up right,” he said.
Receiving the royal treatment goes a long way toward inspiring the artists to push themselves to excel and achieve their best quality of work possible, he said.
“We are looked after like kings,” he said. “It was over-the-top fancy; that makes you feel like you should be in high gear.”
The teams were all given a large block of snow about 2.4-metres (eight-feet) high to work with however they saw fit.
Inspired by majestic wild animals that embody strength, Burke’s design featured four iconic species – a moose, buffalo, bighorn sheep and bear – in a piece called The Big Four.
To separate the heads from one another so the animals weren’t cluttering up one another as well as to give the piece a more imposing presence of mass, he said they added a mountain on top as a backdrop.
“In this event, you’re only allowed to use material from the block that they provide you with,” he said. “But you can re-arrange it.”
Being restricted to using only the block they were given meant cutting out pieces that wouldn’t be used and then hoisting them up, in the end doubling the block’s original height to nearly 4.9-metres (16-feet) tall, an effort that involved ladders and scaffolding, he said.
“It’s kind of a theme that I’ve been massaging for several years,” he said.
The theme also seemed to resonate with the home audience in Minnesota.
“It’s not a requirement, but that’s something that can add to creating a successful sculpture, is something that’s locally relevant,” he said.
“But it didn’t seem to help, because we didn’t win,” he said, followed by laughter.
“There was some exceptional pieces there,” he added.
Burke agreed that even just qualifying for a spot to compete at an international championship is an achievement.
“It gives you some credibility,” he said.
Closer to home, the artist was pleased to see the community’s interest on the trip based on a higher-than-normal level of engagement on some local social media pages.
“In the four-day event, there was more than 2,500 likes and comments,” he said.
The response bolstered his spirit to redouble his effort to promote the multi-faceted benefits that art can offer.
“Art gets a pretty hard ride in Alberta,” he said. “We’re all about cowboy boots and hockey skates. There isn’t a lot of understanding – and therefore appreciation for – the fact that the arts are a huge economic driver. Huge.”
A former competitor in the Canadian Boxing Championships who once was named the Alberta Whitewater Canoe and Kayak Champion and also previously served two years as co-chairman of the Okotoks Professional Rodeo, Burke rejects any assertion from anyone who claims he doesn’t care about anything other than art.
“I’m not just a mamby pamby artist; I just happened to fall into this art thing and it stuck,” he wrote in one of many public posts on social media. “I’m a living example that everyone loves art.”
But he does contest that the arts rival sports in terms of the potential benefits of the economic and social ripple effects.
“Besides just appreciating the artwork itself, it’s the fact that art is a tremendous force,” he told the Albertan, adding that aspect does not seem to be fully realized in Alberta or even Canada.
That’s not a condemnation of our society, but rather simply a commentary on a nascent nation that’s understandably been preoccupied building roads, bridges and infrastructure in its relatively short history compared with countries in Europe and Asia, where communities and cultures have had a head start counting in the thousands of years to develop.
“Their appreciation is completely different than ours is,” he said.
“Who goes to Paris and doesn’t visit the Louvre?” he said without a hint of levity. “Really, who does? I’m sure there’s a percentage; but basically, that’s a must do.”
So he’s not shy about sharing his passion not only about creating art but also developing greater appreciation for its potential.
For example, he said roughly a couple of thousand people visited Bergen Rocks last summer.
“How many farm yards do 2,000 people stop in to see what’s on the lawn?” he asked rhetorically, pointing out that those folks fuel up in the area and also frequent local eateries and possibly accommodations for longer duration visits.
Art competitions and festivals, he said, have the potential to entice local as well as international audience, whereas sports tournaments for example primarily tend to draw out a much narrower demographic of family and friends of the players.
But an extensively promoted art festival has the potential to draw from a much wider audience, he said.
“The bottom line is, that you can’t advertise in the wrong place for an arts event, because everybody is interested in art,” he said. “They just maybe don’t realize it yet.”
This spring, Burke said he plans to get back into working with stone and wood with the goal of getting more public art placed in the area.