During the brutal winter of 2015, most New Englanders turned up the heat, hunkered down in their homes, and turned to social media to complain about the glacial cold and volume of snow. Dave Rothstein (A.B. ’90) went outside; built a full-sized igloo in his yard in Florence, Massachusetts; crafted shot glasses out of ice; donned a polar bear costume; and invited his friends over for drinks.
In the worst of winter, you’ll find Rothstein in his element. An internationally recognized snow sculptor, he spends the season traveling to competitions and events across world, carving larger-than-life characters and elegant abstract figures. He has won competitions from Canada to Argentina, and has sculpted as far away as New Zealand. Last month, he and his Team USA-Vermont took first place in the International Snow Sculpture Championship.
Rothstein works in other media, as well—some more traditional (wood and clay) and some less permanent (sand, ice, pumpkins, cheese, and butter). He is also a skilled photographer with an eye for sweeping landscapes and for creating compositions that pair doughnuts with mini-figurines. But snow is Rothstein’s true passion. Snow sculpting seems like a surprising departure for someone who majored in economics at U-M, but the through lines—for both his art and his career as an attorney with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service—are clear.
No Cold Feet
As a student, Rothstein paired his interest in economics with a love of wildlife and natural resources management to focus on natural resource and biology economics. He spent two summers at Michigan’s Biological Station, which proved to be one of the pivotal experiences of his life. “The Biological Station was the most enjoyable, eye-opening experience, and an incredibly special place to me," he says. "The station and the people there helped mold me.” During those summers, he developed a love of the natural world, and an appreciation of light, movement, and the elements that had him ready to embrace snow arts when the right opportunity came along.
In Jackson, New Hampsire, Rothstein and fellow sculptor Philip Thornton carved this piece from an 8-foot-block of snow. The front shows a songbird perched on a finger; the back of the sculpture portrays an owl taking flight from a tree.
Animation by Erin Nelson
It turns out that the right opportunity arrived in 1997 in Anchorage, Alaska. After several years working as a wildlife biologist, Rothstein decided to pursue a degree in environmental law to broaden his effectiveness in wildlife conservation. After law school, he took a clerkship with the Alaska Supreme Court. On a lark, Rothstein and some friends decided to participate in the Fur Rendezvous, a sort of Mardi Gras for the north, and signed up for snow sculpting, thinking it would be easy and fun. When they saw the 10x10x10-foot block of snow, Rothstein’s friends bailed, but he was undaunted. They served as his support staff, bringing him mittens and warm drinks, while he sculpted a giant polar bear in a beach chair.
After the Fur Rendezvous, Rothstein began participating in snow-sculpting events whenever possible. In the early days, he didn’t take risks with the snow, sticking with solid characters and wildlife figures. Within a few years, though, he became more confident and started to sculpt abstract works, playing with shapes, angles, light, and shadows. Rothstein, enamored of sculpting itself, also fell in love with the broader winter arts community. Other sculptors were immediately welcoming, offering advice and lending tools, and some became close friends.
Nearly 20 years later, Rothstein’s passion for snow sculpting has only deepened. “Snow brings together everything that I love,” he says. For Rothstein, "everything" includes working as part of a team, learning from and collaborating with other artists, and the cultural exchange involved in international events, where sculptors share techniques and tools even when they don’t share a language. He also enjoys teaching snow sculpting, bringing new people into the fold, and inspiring others to embrace the beauty of winter and its creative possibilities. “My tagline would be ‘Spreading the gospel of winter art.’ The more people I can engage, whether it’s viewing it or participating or trying it, the better.” Above all, Rothstein loves the snow itself, arranged into extraordinary characters that make people laugh, or gorgeous abstract pieces that play with light, movement, and shadow.
“Snow sculptures bend, twist, have air pockets in them, and shadows and light,” he explains. “That’s the magic for me of the snow.”
The connections may not be immediately obvious, but Rothstein says Michigan gave him gifts that helped him discover that magic. The Honors program instilled an interdisciplinary approach to everything he does and gave him “an opportunity to take initiative, to go my own way, to think critically for myself.” His training as a scientist has influenced his approach to sculpting, teaching him to be logical and orderly, particularly in the preplanning stages, and to fully understand the materials with which he’s working. He also incorporates his training in the trial and error of experimentation, as he learns what works with different kinds of snow, light, and temperature. Finally, his training in wildlife biology and botany—how to observe and understand animal behavior and movement, and how to see the natural world—are perhaps his strongest influences.
The snow-sculpting sport has not designated official snow-carving tools. For tight spots, Rothstein prefers hand tools. Among his favorites: a five-foot saw that’s reminiscent of those used in the 19th century to cut blocks of ice.
While Rothstein will continue to spend his winters drawing beauty from enormous blocks of snow, he has ambitions to broaden access to the snow arts and increase their impact. He’s particularly excited about two projects, both in the seed stages. One will bring cultural groups in conflict together in a peace camp setting to collaborate on snow sculpting. The other is to create a snow sculpting event in Hawaii, in and around Mauna Kea, and engage the native community in sculpting based on their culture and traditions.
Meanwhile, Rothstein, wearing his ancient University of Michigan parka, will carve the winter away, spreading the snow gospel on the international stage and in his front yard. And when he can, he’ll literally spread the love—creating random art of kindness by dropping sculptures on friends’ lawns when they’re not expecting it.