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Ephemeral drawings and a lasting legacy

This year, visiting artist Sonja Hinrichsen and her group of volunteer artists created a drawing of the water flow on the lake during the weekend of Jan. 9 and 10 on Lake Catamount.
John F. Russell

Snow Drawings by Sonja Hinrichsen

Snow Drawings – Briancon, France, 2014

Snow Drawings – Eychauda, France, 2014

We Are The Water – Snow Drawings project, Colorado, 2014

Snow Drawings at Catamount Lake, Colorado, 2013

Snow Drawings at Rabbit Ears Pass, Colorado, 2012

Snow Drawings, Hayden, Colorado, January 2011

Snow Drawings, Ooms Pond, NY, 2011

Snow Drawings, Snowmass Village, Colorado 2009

Other work by Sonja Hinrichsen

Interventions in Nature:

Project in the Citrus Grove at Taliesin-West, Scottsdale, AZ, February 2011

Paradise Tree, Southern Spain, September 2008

Sun/Moon Symbol, Wyoming 2008

Video Installations:

Living off the Land – Rosendale NY, Spring 2013

Yes, You Can Eat Them, Red Deer, AB, Canada, Fall 2011

The San Francisco Bay – A Mediamorphology, Krowswork, Oakland, CA, 2012

The Three Gorges – 3rd Edition, Organhaus Gallery, Chongqing, China, 2011

Where the Waters Meet, RedLine Gallery, Denver, 2011

Reflections, PlatteForum Denver, July 2009

Layered Perspectives, UNC-Charlotte, Rowe Gallery, Nov./Dec. 2009

Steamboat Springs resident Katie Berning participated in the Jan. 9 snow drawing event and was inspired to write the following haiku.

"The sky opens up,

dropping countless, unique flakes.

A fresh, blank canvas."

— “Imagine yourself as a drop of water from the Yampa River and how that water flows through the valley,” said Sonja Hinrichsen, German-born environmental artist visiting Steamboat Springs from San Francisco. “It rarely moves in a direct manner but rather, moves in whirlpools, swirls around rocks and makes ripples.” Our instructions were laid out as clearly as the new snowfall on Lake Catamount in front of us. With snowshoes as our paint brushes, we received the go-ahead signal from Hinrichsen and took our first steps toward the blank canvas of untouched snow.

Deemed an artist for the day, I was one of the more than 20 volunteers who worked together to help create Hinrichsen’s large-scale snow drawings on Catamount Lake and Carpenter Ranch during two consecutive weekends in January.

I wouldn’t normally think of myself as an artist, but trekking through 10 inches of new snow to form my own tracks of zig-zags or spirals representing the original tributaries along the Yampa River that created Lake Catamount, my creativity was unleashed.



“I feel like people in general don’t get enough exposure to nature or experience it any longer because they are so tied up in all of these man-made environments,” Hinrichsen said. “I wanted to actually involve people in the artistic process and have them actively participate — not just look at the finished product that an artist made in a gallery or museum.”

With equal parts pride and apprehension, Hinrichsen stood along the edge of the lake watching the volunteers’ progress. By giving up control of the artistic process, she leaves the ephemeral projects up to fate.



“I didn’t find it hard to let go,” Hinrichsen said. “A lot of artists want to be in control of their project, but this is really tailored to this idea that I am giving up control and letting go. I don’t know what will come out of it, and I can’t predict the outcome of the piece. But to me, that’s really interesting, because it’s always this huge surprise, and it’s so amazing and exciting because you have no idea what it will turn out to be.”

In 2009, Hinrichsen created her first snow drawings after a three-month artist residency in Snowmass. Then, in 2011, she completed an artist residency at The Nature Conservancy’s Carpenter Ranch in Hayden through the Colorado Art Ranch program. During her time there, she created her first solo snow drawings on the frozen Yampa River near the ranch.

Wanting to involve the community in her next creation, Hinrichsen returned to Steamboat Springs in 2012 for snow drawings on Rabbit Ears Pass. In 2013, a group of 60 volunteers joined the artist on Lake Catamount to create another art piece on the snow-covered lake.

Then in 2014, Hinrichsen returned to Catamount to make another snow drawing — this time, through the sponsorship of the Legacy Education Fund, a place-based educational program in Routt County that focuses on taking students out of the classroom and into nature. Titled “We are the Water,” this piece was created with the help of 50 volunteers, who abstractly recreated the original flow of the Yampa River and its four main tributaries.

Snow Drawings by Sonja Hinrichsen

Snow Drawings – Briancon, France, 2014

Snow Drawings – Eychauda, France, 2014

We Are The Water – Snow Drawings project, Colorado, 2014

Snow Drawings at Catamount Lake, Colorado, 2013

Snow Drawings at Rabbit Ears Pass, Colorado, 2012

Snow Drawings, Hayden, Colorado, January 2011

Snow Drawings, Ooms Pond, NY, 2011

Snow Drawings, Snowmass Village, Colorado 2009

This year, Hinrichsen and her group of volunteer artists created a similar drawing of the water flow on the lake during the weekend of Jan. 9 and 10. She had hopes of creating the spiral patterns and individualized designs in a field near the Yampa Valley Regional Airport on the second weekend, but heavy snowfall, measuring nearly two feet, covered the first day’s work and forced the group to move its natural canvas to one of the smaller fields near the ranch.

Other work by Sonja Hinrichsen

Interventions in Nature:

Project in the Citrus Grove at Taliesin-West, Scottsdale, AZ, February 2011

Paradise Tree, Southern Spain, September 2008

Sun/Moon Symbol, Wyoming 2008

Video Installations:

Living off the Land – Rosendale NY, Spring 2013

Yes, You Can Eat Them, Red Deer, AB, Canada, Fall 2011

The San Francisco Bay – A Mediamorphology, Krowswork, Oakland, CA, 2012

The Three Gorges – 3rd Edition, Organhaus Gallery, Chongqing, China, 2011

Where the Waters Meet, RedLine Gallery, Denver, 2011

Reflections, PlatteForum Denver, July 2009

Layered Perspectives, UNC-Charlotte, Rowe Gallery, Nov./Dec. 2009

“There was nothing left of the piece we did Saturday, but that is the risk that I’m taking with this work,” Hinrichsen said. “This hasn’t happened to me before, to be honest, when something was completely covered up overnight. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a lot of good images, because the area we worked on near the ranch was so small, and with the snow all the way up to our waists, it was really, really hard to walk through all of that snow.”

Outside Routt County, Hinrichsen has created snow drawings in Denali National Park, Ooms Pond near Chatham, New York, and at two spots in the French Alps.

“You wouldn’t expect this as your first idea of what art is,” Hinrichsen said. “But with this, we have snowshoes on this huge snow canvas. It shows people that art isn’t just one thing. There are so many endless possibilities of making art.”

An ephemeral art trend

Using garden implements and wooden sticks, Santa Cruz-based artist Jim Denevan has been working with ephemeral art pieces in the sand since 1994 and is known as one of the first artists to create mesmerizingly massive drawings outdoors.

The term “ephemeral art” is used to describe a work of art that occurs once or something that exists only briefly that cannot necessarily be embodied in a lasting object shown in a museum or gallery. For some artists who do this kind of work, they, like Hinrichsen, try to photograph the art work, and that is what is seen through the media and in galleries.

“This is much more different than being in a studio doing a painting,” Denevan said. “I think of art outdoors like a dance, football, soccer or even basketball, because you are considering where to put the marks. It’s like a field of play, and the boundaries you create, or limits, are how big the beach is.”

Without measuring or composing prior to drawing in the sand or snow, Denevan creates his work of reccurring circles or three-dimensional illusions with an idea that starts big, then goes small and is inspired by place.

In 2010, Denevan and his crew, commissioned by the art magazine, “The Anthropologist,” traveled to Lake Baikal in southwestern Siberia to create what’s been called the world’s largest drawing. Throughout the course of two weeks, they created a land art installation that spanned nine square miles across a frozen lake. The design was based on the mathematical Fibonacci sequence, starting at 18 inches in diameter and stretching to several miles.

Never craving the spotlight, Denevan said he wanted to create the art as a means of personal expression, such as dancing or singing, not to sell in a gallery.

“People should follow what’s meaningful for them,” he said. “What’s meaningful for me goes beyond the mark that’s being made. It has to do with the integration of everything that fascinates me.”

As social media creates a new forum for artists to be heard, Denevan has seen groups in Ireland create sand drawings, landscape architects in Brazil make small- and large-scale works and artists in New Zealand produce huge crop circles of pre-planned geometric drawings.

“No one really devoted time to it until 2004 or 2005 in the San Francisco area,” Denevan said. “Now, I’ve been seeing an amazing amount of different stuff that people are doing with snow. There are a lot of new methods, and things happening with this kind of art all over the world, and for me, it’s fulfilling to see the diversity of approaches. I imagine there will be a whole culture of it within fiveyears or so.”

Denevan said Hinrichsen’s method of involving the community in her work is another approach that reflects her personality and interest and is powerful and beautiful to see.

“I think people are drawn to this kind of art, because it’s grand and it’s gentle,” he said. “If you made something that big and it just sat there — it’s already bombastic and huge, but it makes up for it because it will be gone. It’s fascinating to compose on big spaces, and it’s interesting to think about what you might want to try. It’s always a great spot for creativity and improvising. People can walk into it, enjoy it, then let it disappear.”

Driving toward the proposed canvas of the second drawing near the Hayden airport about two miles from Carpenter Ranch, Hinrichsen stared out the window as she sought the best area to create the intricate designs of individualized spirals.

“It’s about the lay of the land and what that land does,” she said. “I oftentimes find places by accident. I haven’t always decided on the exact specifics of patterns before I visit a place, and sometimes, I will just decide on that when I see it.”

On a tour this winter, Hinrichsen will travel to upstate New York, Vermont and then the Sierra Nevada to develop new snow drawings, working with different communities at each location. Spirals are her signature symbol, and it’s a shape she said is easier for volunteers to interpret.

“If I work with a community, there is a limitation,” she said. “I can’t expect people who have never done anything like this to be able to do complicated patterns with me. It needs to be something that is fairly easy and won’t intimidate them.”

Spirals, she said, are also symbols embedded in people’s daily lives.

“It’s inherent in us, because it’s so much part of nature,” she said. “If you just think about our galaxy, it’s the shape of a spiral. If you think about a fingerprint, it is, too, or even seedpods, seashells or how water drains in a spiral. It’s just so common in nature that I feel like it’s something we all know about. It’s so natural, and people respond to it.”

Graduating from the Academy of Art in Stuttgart, Germany, Hinrichsen received a master’s degree in new genres from the San Francisco Art Institute in 2001. Since, she has won numerous artist residencies, including stints at the Ucross Foundation in Wyoming, Bemis Center in Omaha, Djerassi in California, the Santa Fe Art Institute, Valparaiso in Spain, Fiskars in Finland and Taipei Artist Village in Taiwan. She has been featured in exhibitions all across the world, from Chicago to Berkeley, and from Germany and China.

Her snow drawings have been shown on numerous art, design, cultural and environmental Websites and blogs, such as the Huffington Post and The Creator’s Project in Germany, in magazines, such as the Public Art Review, SOMA Magazine, and on television, with features on MSNBC, The Discovery Channel and public TV Tokyo.

Photographs of her drawings have also been featured in elementary school books in Germany and France, and one photo from the 2013 drawings on Lake Catamount was awarded first prize by the Piedmont Art Center in Piedmont, California.

Hinrichsen examines urban and natural environments through extensive research and conservation efforts, and she said it’s her affinity for nature that is always at the forefront of her work.

“I’ve always loved nature and looked for comfort there, even as a kid,” she said. “If I was upset with my parents or whatever, I would take my bike, blanket and something to read andwould stay outside in nature, not coming home until it was dark out. Even now, it’s always my first place that I turn to.”

Throughout the years, she has created installations such as the “Layered Perspectives” collaboration with students from the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, that revealed the history of the area through “Where the Waters Meet,” and “Reflections,” a research project of Denver and its history through videos and overlapping projections from the ground up, allowing the viewer to be part of the installation. Others projects have included the “Sun/Moon Symbol” in Wyoming and the “Paradise Tree” in southern Spain.

“Her projects are another device that brings the artists, community and land together in this sort of unique appreciation in nature,” said Caliope Niclas, residency director at the Millay Colony Artist Residency in Austerlitz, New York. “There’s this fragile beauty that can be created then gone, and they are also interacting with the environment in a different way.

“It draws the surrounding landscape into it but also enhances it. The elements work together and makes you notice the environment in a way that you wouldn’t normally. If you see it every day, it may make you pause and take a look at that area in a new way, and that’s what art is all about.”

Leaving a memory

“For me, when I actually got out and participated in the activity, it unfolded into something that I never expected,” said Betsy Blakeslee, Carpenter Ranch facilities manager, who has volunteered with Hinrichsen’s snow drawing projects since they started on Rabbit Ears Pass. “When my drawings contributed to the aerial photograph, we could each see how we are all part of nature and that our imprint is influential.”

Within minutes, hours, days or weeks, the drawings disappear as Hinrichsen processes the aerial photos she takes of each project — the images and memories attached continue to live on through social media, articles in newspapers and magazines, galleries and the stories of those who participated.

“What you get out of this is a simple, beautiful and ever-changing art, and doesn’t that reflect how nature is?” asked Elizabeth Brookmeyer, a Steamboat Springs resident who volunteered this year at Lake Catamount. “The snow will be gone in a few months, and there will be a different kind of energy on the water but I really like that part of it.”

The physical and mental effort it takes to contribute to the project was a challenge for some, but once they saw the end result, volunteers said the effort was worth every step in deep snow.

“It’s just amazing to think that you can make a track like that and make this kind of neat-looking stuff,” said George Watts who volunteered for both the Lake Catamount and Carpenter Ranch snow drawings this year. “You kind of go back to that time when you were a kid making snowmen out in the snow, just having fun creating something. I love Steamboat because of the fact that you can feel like an artist in this way.”

To reach Audrey Dwyer, call 970-871-4229, email adwyer@SteamboatToday.com or follow her on Twitter @Audrey_Dwyer1


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