By Allison Campbell-Jensen
Artistic Jack-O-Lanterns have been grabbing attention at the Minnesota Zoo for a couple of years. Even without arms, it turns out that those pumpkins’ reach is (almost) unbelievably long. Justin Boeser, one of the team of artists who creates lovely, exciting, and entrancing pumpkin artworks, grew up in Minnesota and now works in Magrath Library as well as the Natural Resources Library on the St. Paul campus.
To paint portraits on pumpkins he needs a very special ink; by sharing his vegetable-friendly palette works on social media, he caught the eyes of a mysterious contractor. She asked a lot of questions but refused to indicate which organization she represented.
Another member of the pumpkin-art team, Edward Cabral, also was contacted. It felt a little weird but they were intrigued.
“As soon as they start asking for personal information and money, we’ll back out,” Boeser suggested to Cabral. Instead, they received a contract.
Even so, says team member Susannah Belbas: “I was basically pretty sure we were getting scammed until we got on the plane to go there.”
There, being a very special snow dome in Colorado, with their TV host Tituss Burgess, and four other artsy teams for a fresh competition: “Best in Snow.”
And that secret employer?
You’ve heard of them: Disney.
Tackling tons of snow
“It’s funny because I would never consider my regular art to be Disney-esque,” Boeser says; he leans toward the spooky. He had never thought of himself as a snow sculptor either, but there he was, with Cabral, who is a sculptor based in New York City, Belbas, who currently focuses on soft sculpture and textile arts, and local muralist Vivi.
As it turns out, except for a few experienced snow sculpture artists brought in as mentors, no one brought in to tackle the massive snow cubes — 10 foot by 10 foot by 10 foot — had worked in the medium before.
“Working on something that big can sometimes be a lot easier because it can be a lot more forgiving,” says Belbas, who earned a bachelor’s of Fine Art at the U of M. “If you need to add more snow, you can kind of re-shape” the sculpture.”
Cabral says that once they arrived at the reality show’s site in the Colorado mountains, “It kind of felt like a dream.” Or a nightmare? He adds that the work was non-stop, amounting to 13 or 14 hours a day. It was also a bit stressful: Once the lights went on, they were on camera.
“It’s a competition, and we’re making friends, and it’s so much work,” moving tons of snow. (Each snow cube weighed about 20 tons.)
“It was really fun,” Boeser says. “It was really exhausting.”
And, he remembers when he graduated with an art degree, and is known for his keenly observed drawings and paintings, his family urged him to stretch into new areas. “Just because I’m an artist,” he told them, “doesn’t mean I can do anything.”
But he’ll try!
“We had to be extremely happy all the time, in the Christmas Dome,” Boeser says. “There’s a lot of gawking with awe.” Yet, it wasn’t hard to look impressed for the cameras, he adds: “The set is so cool.”
Working with the acclaimed musical comedy artist Tituss Burgess also was fun, Belbas
says. “He is incredibly sassy and hilarious. … Our team entered in the line directly behind him,” she adds, and he liked goofing around on set. “He was always down to throw some side-eye looks.”
With their various approaches to art, the team was strong, and then they were paired with two professional snow sculpture artists. Their snow artists’ approach was more abstract than the more representational work that Cabral, Boeser, Belbas, and Vivi typically do. While his usual sculptural work is somewhat isolating — working alone in a studio, showing at a gallery — Cabral enjoyed being part of a team. He adds that they were “like a tripod — better together.”
They lived together, relied on each other, and ultimately grew even closer as fellow artists who are friends. “It was a dream,” Cabral says.
Says Belbas: “I feel like I’ve made some life-long friends, people I admire and love: Justin and Vivi and Edward.”
And, if you want to tune in to see them work together, “Best in Snow” debuts Nov. 18 on Disney!