A British artist stomps through the snow to create dazzling geometric patterns
A British artist has brought his creative skills to the slopes of a Chinese ski resort. Simon Beck’s tools are small and simple – a compass and a pair of snowshoes. But his canvases are vast, snow-covered wintry landscapes.
His artworks are giant and sophisticated, involving complex geometric designs, each bigger than 100 square metres in diameter and all drawn by his footprints.
Seen from above, they are amazing blends of intricacy with simplicity, just like crop circles, but created through hours of walking in the snowfield.
The 57-year-old Briton has been doing thwse snowscapes every winter since 2004, when he trod the snow at a ski resort in Les Arcs, France. Since then he’s made many patterns at many locations, producing more than 250 “drawings” in different scales.
On March 8 Beck came to Chongli in Hebei province, northwest of Beijing. Within two days he’d finished a mandala flower design on the slope of a Fulong ski resort. Chongli will host most of the skiing events at the 2022 Winter Olympics.
“Usually I do a drawing on natural snow,” says Beck, “but here it’s piste snow, which makes it harder to draw with footprints – I have to dig with a spade a little bit, and that’s why it took much longer.”
A typical creation takes Beck about a day’s work, after one or two hours of preparation indoors.
The Oxford University graduate in engineering worked as a cartographer before becoming what he calls a “snow artist”.
“All hi-tech precision equipment is useless to me. I just need a compass to orient my way and some chocolate bars for energy,” says Beck, who trained for years in orienteering and mapping.
Beck has enjoyed outdoor activities since childhood. He recounts going to see snow in Scotland when he was nine and appreciating the “land art” – drawings on earth – such as the Cerne Abbas Giant and the Uffington White Horse in southern England where he grew up.
He didn’t start doing his own art, however, until he bought a small apartment high up in Les Arcs on the southeast side of the French Alps, when he started learning to ski. By chance he drew a star for fun on a small snow-covered frozen lake outside his apartment building.
In the past few years Beck has produced about 30 images every winter, and in 2014, a decade after he drew the first star, he published a photo collection of his work, titled “Snow Art”.
Compared with traditional forms like painting and sculpture that last for ages, Beck’s snow art seems momentary, reminding us of the fleeting nature of time.
“The record is eight weeks,” Beck says of how long his work can last. “They gradually fade as the footprints melt and usually they are covered by more snow after a week.
“But it’s good when they get covered, so you can do another drawing!” he laughs.
Having finishing his artwork in Chongli for the Corona Sunset Festival last weekend, he’s flying to the United States to serve as artist-in-residence at a ski resort at Powder Mountain in Utah.
Partly due to his engineering background and partly because of his previous cartography career, Beck’s drawings are often mathematical fractals, such as patterns derived from a Mandelbrot set or Koch star. Simply put, they are combinations of a certain shape that recurs again and again, each time at a smaller scale.
“I’ve witnessed thousands of designs around the world over 30 years and I have to say there are none that are more exquisite and impressive as yours,” crop-circle researcher Colin Andrews commended Beck when his book came out.
The Guardian in 2014 described Beck’s work as an example of how “astonishing landscape and snow art illustrates the cold beauty of mathematics”.
Beck has always enjoyed being outdoors, but before, when orienteering, he would examine the area and then draw the map. Now he does the reverse, as he put it in his book: “I start with a drawing, and make it on the ground, in the snow, in a limited amount of time.”
Beck says he simply wants to make something beautiful in the mountains, and at the same time call people’s attention to the environment. “The drawing is part of the landscape and the landscape is part of the artwork.
“The drawing wouldn’t be as good had the landscape not been there.”
In summer when things slow down for Beck, he goes hiking in the mountains to keep in good shape, and looks after his ageing parents. Sometimes he does drawings in sand on the beach in Somerset, England, not far from his home.
“It’s another kind of race,” he writes in his book, which includes two examples of his “sand art”. This time, it’s a race against the tide.