You've probably seen Simon Beck's masterpieces floating around the internet. Up close it looks like an army has marched through the snow. But when you step back — way back — the texture turns into an extravagant design. Some look like snowflakes, some like elaborate fractals. They're all made with just a compass, Beck's feet and some simple maths.
Beck started making his so-called "snow art" a decade ago as a way to relax after skiing. Sounds kind of zany, right? And, when you see Beck in action, making snow art to calm down sounds downright insane.
"It's just done the old-fashioned way," Beck told me recently. The old-fashioned way, to Beck, involves making simple calculations to shape a design, plotting paths with a compass, and jogging through the snow in snowshoes for up to 22 hours at a time. He'll simply count his strides in patters and repeat the patterns until an expanse the size of several soccer fields is an extravagant, even crystalline design.
The process involved in making each piece looks nothing short of exhausting, especially considering the fact that some of Beck's more complex designs can take two or three consecutive days of snowshoe-jogging. And then, the designs only last a couple of days before a fresh snow starts, laying a blank canvas over the finished work. Beck creates most of his pieces on frozen lakes in Les Arcs, France, where local skiers can spot the designs from the chairlift but can't ski over them.
The level of raw fitness and determination required to turn Beck's mathematical designs into snow art is also what makes them so impressive. The 55-year-old spent his life making maps for a living and competing in orienteering races. (In fact, he won the British Orienteering Championships, when he was just 16 years old.) The sport involves finding the quickest path between two points on uncharted terrain, so it's not hard to see how he applied the same skills to his designs. Of course, there's something more poignant about trudging through 25cm of snow in standard snowshoes for the sake of art.
Now, Beck is starting to branch out. Thanks in part to a recent sponsorship from Icebreaker, an outdoor merino wool apparel company that features his designs in a new artist series, the native of southwest England has started expanding. Beck's latest experiments involve applying his unique technique to the vast beaches of his homeland, where massive tidal variations sometimes creates 2km-long beaches.
On sand, the work is even more temporal. Just like he does in the snow, Beck often works in a circle and traces the designs with his paces, rather than measuring tape or lasers or whatever. He uses a rake to draw the darker shades. And like with snow art, the sand art exists for a limited time only. By the time Beck is putting the finishing touches on a piece of sand art, the tide is usually lapping at one edge and beginning the process of nature taking back the art. It's kind of hard to watch:
Who knows where Beck will go next. Just running through a list of other surfaces he could tackle, you might imagine he'd get into mowing some wild lawn art. But the work just wouldn't be the same with machines.
Beck's snow art is extraordinary not just because it's so simple and so beautiful. It hearkens back on a time, thousands of years ago, when our ancestors sketched their own shapes into the Earth. Perhaps they did it to pay tribute to the Gods. Or perhaps they did it just because they could.
Check out Simon Beck's new collection for Icebreaker and keep an eye out for a his first book which hits shelves this month.
Pictures: Simon Beck