The Storm and the Sculpture
The snowman is the quintessential piece of vernacular sculpture. True, people who don’t consider themselves artists also make sandcastles, bonfires and even Christmas lights can be viewed as vernacular installation art, but the snowman seems to hold a special place in both sculpture and culture as a whole. How many other types of sculpture have their own fully developed mythology with movies, books, songs, sub-characters, spin-offs, etc.? No one has ever heard of Sandy the Sandcastle Queen, but everyone can hum along to Frosty’s theme song. The snowman sculptural phenomenon is easily attributed to marketing for the holiday season (especially since Frosty was originally a Rudolph spin-off, who everyone knows was a Montgomery Ward marketing ploy), but snowmen are far more complex than other elements of the holiday marketing push.
Snowmen appear to be vaguely figurative and can be anthropomorphized, but it is easy to argue that snowmen are their own concept that actually has little to do with being a representation of a human. Ever seen a realistic snowman? Hyper-realistic snowmen are no longer snowmen, but rather figurative sculpture that happens to be made out of snow. Snowmen follow their own sculptural tradition that is always paired with social ritual. Ever made a snowman and then not come in to have hot chocolate? It would border on sacrilegious. Snowmen also function best as a communal sculpture-making endeavor since making a snowman alone seems to miss one of the purposes of why snowmen exist. Making snowmen is a winter bonding ritual between friends and family. For some children, finally being old enough to be allowed to participate in making the annual family snowman is a rite of passage.
Maybe people hold a special place for snowmen because they directly evoke complex associations with our own mortality. All snowmen are made with the knowledge that they will melt. Paradoxically, if snowmen lasted forever, no one would make them. They are made to have temporary lives; to die at the end of the season and then be re-born the next year.
Such a simple sculpture holds unbelievable meaning in our society. One of the most relevant elements about snowmen is that they are fun! Not many pieces of artwork can hold so much meaning while also creating so much pure joy and pride, no matter what the outcome. Every snowman I have ever made has been a complete failure and I have loved every part of them. Every photo album I have has a picture of my sister and me next too a terrible snowman made mostly of dirt and sticks; both of us with huge grins of pride.
The storm hitting New England right now will spawn armies of snowmen and I know I am looking forward to driving around and seeing as many as I can.
If you make a snowman this year, please take a picture of it and post a link to the picture in the comment section.