Artist Simon Beck uses snow and sand as his canvas to create huge, jaw-droppingly beautiful geometric pieces that are, quite frankly, awe-inspiring. British-born Beck travels the world, from Switzerland to China to South America, to walk non-stop for 12 hours at a time, covering distances of up to 25 miles, painstakingly mapping out, shading and edging ephemeral designs that he photographs for posterity. What started as a hobby has become a second career for the former cartographer. We caught up with Beck to find out what inspires him, what it’s like for his body and mind to be on his feet for hours on end, and the inspiring mindset he takes if he puts a foot wrong.
Rituals: Does your snow art stem from passions you had as a child?
Simon Beck: I used to draw quite a lot of diagrams when I was a child. You draw different points with a protractor and join them up, but none of the other kids could do it as it requires a little care and attention. I hated school, I always felt we were made to do stupid pointless projects, so one of my teachers said I could choose my own project to do and I drew a load of diagrams and put them in a book. I wish I had kept it now, but my father used to tidy up and throw things away without any communication with other people!
Rituals: How did you come to create art in the snow and sand?
Beck: Well, it wasn’t until I was 46 and I went to live in a ski resort and had the chance to create these diagrams in the snow. I used to do orienteering and I said when I got too old to do an elite time, I would stop making it a priority and I would go learn to ski. I learnt when I was in New Zealand in October 2002 at Mount Hutt and then I went to live in the French resort of Les Arcs in 2004, quite soon after the start of the ski season. I looked out at the frozen snow-covered lake and I thought ‘let’s go and make a pattern on it’. So, as soon as I got the opportunity, when the lakes were safely frozen, I did. I soon realised that no one else was making designs like this on the snow.
Rituals: Do you plan out your designs first?
Beck: A simple design, like a star, requires you to walk into the middle, measure the points out from the centre and join them up, so that’s simple. I often draw the designs first [one millimeter equals one footprint] to work out the logistics, because any time you walk through the snow you will create a line and that line will appear in the final design. In the early days I drew them all first, but now I have done over 350 designs, so I know how to do it before I get out there.
At first, I really focus to get the main lines correct. These need to be as accurate as I can get them, so I’ll count my footsteps and use a compass, so I don’t make a mistake. As I go, I put down markers, like sticks or clothing, and use these as aiming points. It’s easy to hop towards the wrong aiming point when it’s 75 metres away, so it takes a lot of focus but once all structural lines are drawn in, about two hours after I’ve started, I have done all the thinking part and I can just relax, plod around, and listen to my personal stereo. I listen to classical music, I hate pop music! Once in a while I’ll think I’ve heard that too much, then I’ll have a complete change and load up some different songs.
There are generally four stages to each design: the careful measuring, the drawing of the lines, the shading, and finally, drawing of the edge. For the boundary, I usually create a fractal shape, drawing circles and smaller circles. I often work into the night using a head torch, so after a long tiring day of making a design and then photographing the next day, I need an easy day or two. If additional fine weather is expected, I will extend a design or increase its complexity.
Rituals: What happens if you make a mistake?
Beck: The designs look best when they are precise, it’s more geometry than art. If I do make a mistake it tends to be quite early on in the process, it could be something like aiming for the wrong point. If I make a mistake, rather than give up, I alter the design in real time. I’ve had a few designs that have ended up looking totally different to the initial drawing. I always think ‘okay, next time I’ll have another go at it’. Provided the end result looks good, then I’m satisfied.
If I make a mistake, rather than give up, I alter the design in real time.
Rituals: What inspires your designs?
Beck: I try to think of a design that looks different to what I’ve done before. It also has to be something that I can do easily in a 10–12-hour day. So, it shouldn’t have separate islands that are joined by an unwanted track, for example. I don’t want lots of curves, straight lines are simpler. Having said that, occasionally I’ll look to crop circles for inspiration.
I don’t usually repeat a design once I have got a good picture, I’ll photograph it from certain vantage points or if I’m commissioned they will use a drone.
The reason to repeat designs is if I didn’t get a good photograph or I want to create it in a different location. I don’t edit the pictures, but some designs get walked through by people, so I have changed the rules of the game slightly – I now allow myself to edit a picture if it gets walked on rather than recreate the whole design again! However, ‘faking' things is very time consuming to do well, it doesn't take a great deal of damage to make it quicker to repeat the drawing!
Rituals: Where have been the most breathtaking places to work?
Beck: People quite often commission me to make drawings in ski resorts. Corona Beer have twice flown me to South America. Skoda flew me to China. At Zermat, there are fantastic locations with the Matterhorn in the background. Trouble is, what I do is dependent on weather being just right. For example, if the snow is too powdery even the smallest wind will destroy the drawing. When I’m at my home in Les Arcs I can wait for the right conditions. It would take patience to wait, but when I’m at home with my ski gear I have other things I can do!
Rituals: What would you like people to feel when they see your work?
Beck: To be honest, I’m doing it for myself. I can’t control what people feel and everyone’s reaction is different. With painting, for example, you have a system of critics and other artists but with snow, for one thing, most people never see it properly and I’m one of very few people doing it.
Rituals: Do you do any training to prepare for being on your feet for hours on end?
Beck: I come from a background of map making, so I’m used to walking round all day. I’ve been hiking in mountains all my life and so my body is conditioned to doing that sort of thing.
Rituals: When you are creating your art, do you work non-stop or do you take breaks for food?
Beck: I have a big bowl of porridge for breakfast, a pan full. I take water with me, biscuits and bananas, so I can snack as I go. The night before, I eat what you would before a marathon, lots of carbs - a pasta feast.
Rituals: As a brand, we are all about well-being and a healthy mindset - do you use any mindfulness tools when you’re out there or do you have to actively focus on the designs and what you’re doing?
Beck: I’m afraid I don’t, I keep in good physical shape by hiking in the woods and up and down the mountains. I don’t need to do any of these mindfulness things, I do enough of what I enjoy doing to not have to worry about that.
Rituals: Since your pieces follow set patterns do you find that, after a while, you get into “the zone”?
Beck: Yes, I think so. I sort of float along on a cloud listening to the music. Eventually I start getting bored but that’s really because I’m bored of the music. The best moments are when I’m listening to something I haven’t heard before. When it come to the piece, the fractal boundary is the most boring bit to do but the designs look much better with a fractal edge. It’s like life, really, with anything you do there are good bits and boring bits!