Meet the man who creates incredible art that disappears with the next snowfall
Simon Beck grew up in Somerset, South-West England, and most of his life has been based in his parents’ home. Since 2004 he became the owner of an apartment in the French ski resort of Les Arcs, but still spent a lot of time living with his parents to delay the inevitable time when they would have to move into a care home. “It’s so sad to see people declining at the end of their lives,” he muses. “I may well simply disappear one day when I die on a mountainside somewhere, but that’s side-tracking”. Simon Beck is an incredible artist who is renowned for creating vast geometric artworks, making tracks in fresh powdery snow with his snowshoes. His work is physically demanding and can often only be admired first-hand by a few off-piste skiers before fresh snowfall covers it up for all eternity. We met up with Simon to find out more about his fantastic, yet temporary art.
How long have you been into snow sports?
I learnt to ski in 2002 when I was in New Zealand escaping the foot-and-mouth problems in Europe. In 2004 when the market was right, I sold my house in Bracknell, 50km west of London, and bought the apartment in Les Arcs. I’ve not stopped since. I now spend the whole of the ski season based in Les Arcs and shall extend this time once my parents have shuffled off this mortal coil. Drawing is my priority activity, but I do a lot of skiing also.
Have you always been an artist?
No, I drew a lot of geometric patterns when I was a child, but it’s more geometry than art. I’m not good with my hands and I feel more conventional forms of art are best left to the experts. I made my first snow drawing in December 2004 and made a few more drawings each winter. At the end of the 2009 ski season I decided to ‘take the snow drawing seriously’ and make as many drawings as the snow conditions would allow. I was determined to build up a collection of photos of my work with the long-term goal of producing a book.
What inspired you to do your first snow art piece?
It was just a bit of fun. I had no idea how good the result would look, of course; now I wish I had taken it seriously from that point onwards, but other people thought I was just some sort of nutcase who was either going to die in an avalanche or by falling through the ice on the lake, probably sooner rather than later. People kept telling me to get off the lake! We didn’t have the internet in Les Arcs 2000 and I didn’t have a digital camera, so had no way of documenting my work at the time. It took a few more years for things to come together.
How long does it take to create one of your works, and what is the physical toll of snowshoeing all day long?
Most of them have been completed in one ten-hour day. It’s best to get it done in one long session to increase the probability of getting good photos. When the condition of the snow is not too much hard work, one day is enough. However, when it’s deep or heavy, a lot of the shading (the most physically demanding part of the process) gets left for a second session. I become obsessed with the weather forecast! But when a sunny day is expected, I try to complete the drawing the day before the sunny day so that the sunny day can be used for taking photos. The decision to go up the mountain is taken when the forecast gets posted in the resort at nine in the morning. I then eat a big bowl of porridge and start work an hour and a half later.
What have been your favourite pieces and why?
If you mean what looks best, my pieces which feature some kind of star with Mandelbrot-type fractals round the edge always look fantastic. But if you mean what I enjoy creating, it would definitely be any pieces which use the Sierpinski triangle and its variants. I can’t say why, I just like making them!
When did you realise you could make a living from your hobby?
In 2010 I was given some snowshoes and other clothing in return for drawing the logos of two of the companies that make snowshoes. I was then offered money in return for the rights to use photos I had taken in the past. Funnily enough, they were not good enough quality, so three drawings had to be painstakingly recreated. Things took off when I was out of action for four weeks following a hernia repair in 2011. I used the time to set up my Facebook page and operated on the theory that if I put up some quality photos at a fairly low resolution, and allowed people to steal them and share them around the web, then I would start to get offers to buy the high-resolution versions. To my surprise, it worked.
Where do you find inspiration for your art?
We are surrounded by patterns. When I see a pattern, I consider how easy it would be to set it out in the snow. If it’s not too bad, I try to remember it, or I will make notes or take a photo. My favourite inspirations would be the Mandelbrot set, the Koch snowflake, of course, the Sierpinski triangle, and creating general stars by marking out five to 15 points on the edge of a circle and linking them with straight lines and going from there. Of course, a lot of designs involve two or more of the above techniques combined.
What are your biggest challenges when creating your work?
There aren’t any now. I have made 320 drawings in the snow (and 108 in the sand), and I now know what I can do in one day. The hardest bit is the accurate setting out. This is the first of the four stages, the other three being drawing the remaining lines, working on the areas to be shaded and completing the fractal edge. Other than that, keeping my mind focused on it can be difficult. It is very easy to get a wrong aiming point when drawing a line, perhaps I should use better markers, but again that would increase the amount of time the whole process takes. It’s a fine balance.
How do you express your artistic side during the summer?
I make drawings on the beach; this is done by raking the sand. Unfortunately, arthritis in my shoulders means I am limited to dragging a weighted rake rather than using a rake in the way it’s supposed to be used. Conventional raking is unpleasant and causes discomfort for me, so I listened to my body and now only use a weighted rake. I am fortunate to be as fit as I am at 60 years old, so I think ‘let’s not push my luck’! My sand drawings don’t make me any money, but I enjoy doing them immensely. By the time of writing, I have created over 100 pieces of sand art on the beach at Brean, a 40-minute drive from my parents’ home, which is probably as good a site than exists anywhere else on our planet.
What is the next step for you at your work?
Team efforts and night photography. A senior member of the Les Arcs staff has suggested we do some work at night involving long-exposure photography and me wearing a lamp. This has been done once before and the result was an incredibly successful video judging by the number of people asking for permission to re-use it. There are further creative options for lighting the drawings at night, although getting photos isn’t easy. I had an experience in Japan with floodlighting a drawing that to look at was superb, but the photos had light and dark areas which hadn’t been apparent when there, so there is a large learning curve to climb!
You’ve inspired a whole new generation of artists via your viral fame on social media, what would be your advice to those wanting to follow in your footsteps?
Practice setting out accurate markers in summer, then in winter start with the easy drawings. Have a go at the Sierpinski triangle, try to get it accurate, do arcs of circles or the so-called flower of life, and practice fractals for the edges. Remember, I have done 428 drawings on snow and sand and had years of orienteering experience before I started drawing. But in a word? Lots of practice!
Simon Beck has brought out an incredible coffee table book full of photographs of his snow art. Buy yours today here.