A shoe-in: Simon Beck creates unique snowshoe art around Summit County
SILVERTHORNE — Time and nature are central to Simon Beck’s work. A resident of the ski resort Les Arcs in France, the British artist creates expansive murals in the snow using his feet as the brush. He’s brought his international creations to Colorado for the first time and has been drawing in Summit County since the beginning of the month as part of Silverthorne’s First Fridays.
The designs — usually geometric fractals that splinter off into smaller parts of the whole — don’t last long. Strong winds or an overnight snowfall can completely erase the work. The semiretired engineer, cartographer and orienteer uses his passion for photography to preserve his accomplishment.
Beck sees his photos as the artwork and the snow as a tool, so he isn’t bothered by his work disappearing — as long as he’s captured it first. Lately, the art’s lack of permanence has taken on an environmental message, and Beck hopes he can convey the importance of climate change and conservation.
“We’ve been having a very warm winter here at Les Arcs at the present,” Beck said in an interview before he arrived in America. “None of the lakes, including my favorite Lac Marlou, have been safe enough to walk on.”
Beck’s work gained traction in 2011, when he started uploading his photos to Facebook, even though he started practicing the medium in 2004.
“It just started as a bit of fun,” Beck said. “I just thought, ‘Let’s draw a star in this lovely, flat area of frozen snow on a lake.’ I really had no idea how it was going to look. I was quite surprised when I actually saw the finished thing from the top of a tall building.”
He didn’t have a camera back then, nor access to internet, so it wasn’t until he was recovering from hernia surgery that he shared his drawings with the world.
“I was rather relieved to be told that (the surgery) could wait until after the coming ski season,” the 61-year-old Beck said, laughing.
Skiing is what brought him to the French Alps years ago, yet eventually he took the snowshoe art more seriously than downhilling. He’s done about 395 total snow drawings, with roughly 250 in Les Arcs, and he released an art book collecting his photographs in 2014.
“It was really a happy fluke that Les Arcs has got several really good locations to make drawings on,” Beck said.
Finding the right location in the perfect weather makes planning far in advance nigh impossible, but Beck has developed a system. If the forecast calls for sunny, windless skies two days from now, he’ll aim to draw tomorrow. That way he can have the right conditions for photographing the completed work.
With designs averaging about 500 feet in diameter and roughly 20 miles of walking involved, he treats the day of art like a marathon and loads up on carbohydrates the evening prior. He then skis to a lake or field after a breakfast of oatmeal and switches into his snowshoeing gear. The shoes aren’t particular fancy or designed to help make special imprints for the design. If he can clip in his heel to better make sharp corners and walk backward, he’s all set.
It’s usually 11 a.m. once he breaks out a map and compass to start two hours of measuring to translate the paper sketch into reality. Beck then spends three to four hours outlining in the snow, and then six hours of shading and completing the drawing. He skis down after the 12-hour day, refuels at home and prepares to do it all again in about three days.
To stay busy in all seasons, especially when visiting his parents in Suffolk, England, he branched out into sand art in 2014. Aside from wearing less clothes, Beck swaps the snowshoes for a rake and the measuring process goes quicker since he doesn’t have to worry about leaving stray footprints. The sand drawings are more wind-resistant while the snow art can withstand precipitation better.
Beck also enjoys the three-dimensionality the sand gives the work, but either way he’s simply glad to be outside exercising.
“It’s less damaging than running, much safer than cycling, and there’s no problem with bugs or ticks that carry nasty diseases,” Beck said.
“I like being on the beach or the snow because you get something to show for it at the end of the day.
“Some people think I’m a bit of a nutcase wasting my time with these drawings because they get washed away within an hour of being completed. Of course you have a photograph to keep it.”
Regardless of where he is, the designs stay pretty much the same as Beck finds the fractals to be fun, straightforward and nice to look at.
“You basically remember one simple rule and keep repeating it at different scales,” Beck said. “They can give a varied result with a very small amount of mental effort.”
Keeping strain to a minimum helps cut down on absentminded mistakes made by one misplaced step. Once he’s in the groove, he turns on the music — classical or the occasional pop song with the vocals and percussion stripped away — and finishes his work.
“You try to do the bits that are likely to go wrong first and leave the more boring bits for later on,” Beck said. “It’s like driving a care safely. You try to think where an accident can happen and take care at that point.”
Beck has made five drawings in Summit County so far. The first was a snowflake on North Pond Park followed by a version of the Mandelbrot set in Maryland Creek Park. He then moved on to create a series of circles near the Dillon Amphitheater. Heavy winds Saturday night unfortunately erased the work before completion, so on Monday he began a different pattern of circles at the Dillon Marina. On Wednesday he began a new geometric star at the Old Dillon Reservoir.
Other potential locations include Rainbow Park and the Smith Ranch neighborhood, though it is subject to change.
The biggest challenge Beck faces is boredom. He finds himself running out of tracks to listen to that he hasn’t memorized from repetition and other ways to keep his mind active.
“But then I think about people working in boring offices and boring factories,” Beck said. “Boredom is part of work. You just have to keep your mind on it and try to get the best result you can possibly get.”
On a recent trip to Spain, I discovered something that I believe tops the espresso martini. It’s called a barraquito.