Trio of North Dakota snow sculpting artists chisel their way to national spotlight

The group secured the bronze medal at the U.S. National Snow Sculpture competition in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, after creating the “Here, There be Dragons” sculpture.

Men in winter gear hold trophies shaped like snowflakes in front of a white sculpture of a dragon.
From left: Mike Nelson, Josh Zeis and Jay Ray, the members of team North Dakota, pose in front of their finished piece "Here, There Be Dragons" and their third-place trophies at the U.S. National Snow Sculpture competition in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin.
Special to The Forum

FARGO — Fifteen pounds of North Dakota clay was all Joshua Zeis needed to change from studying to become a physician to an artist.

While deployed with the North Dakota National Guard in Iraq in 2007 to 2008, his brother sent him the clay.

When he wasn't clearing improvised explosive devices from roadways, Zeis found time to sculpt the emblem for his regiment, a castle.

He returned home and studied art at North Dakota State University and in 2010 became interested in sculpting snow.

Last year, Zeis and his friends, Mike Nelson and Jay Ray, who at times competed locally against each other, took home the bronze medal at the U.S. National Snow Sculpture competition in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, after creating the “Here, There be Dragons” sculpture.


It was the first time a North Dakota team placed in a national snow sculpture competition, Zeis said.

“We all have our own different stories, but for me personally, I did a little sculpture, and that is when I changed my mind with what I wanted to do with my life,” Zeis said.

The trio will be heading back in February to compete in the 2023 national sculpting competition. The group plans on sculpting "Nemean Lion vs. Hercules," into their snow block. Each snow block is about 10 feet tall and weighs about 9,600 pounds.

“Three-person teams with three days to make it," Zeis said. Roughly 65,000 people a day walk by and watch the group work during the national competition, he added.

Frostival, a local winter celebration of outdoor events, concerts and even snow sculpting is what brought the three friends together. Since they began sculpting snow a few years ago, they’ve made about 15 sculptures throughout the metro area.

Three men in winter gear stand in front of a looming sculpture of the Mandalorian.
From left: Dave Swenson, Mike Nelson and Josh Zeis pose with their finished Frostival sculpture in 2020.
Special to The Forum

In a state like North Dakota with harsh, snowy winters, why the art of snow sculpting isn’t more popular is an enigma to the trio, and they hope the art form will begin attracting more attention.

“Nobody thought about it; I never even thought about it until I ran across a Facebook post back in 2017," Ray said. The group is trying to bring in new carvers and even have some high school art teachers helping sculpt, he said.

“It’s befuddling to me that it's not a bigger thing in North Dakota," Nelson said. An individual is not going to drop a couple grand on a snow sculpture, so it does take a community to help, he noted.


The snow artists work on their own dime, paying their way back and forth to the competition. Locally, there isn’t money to be made with the snow sculptures yet.

Despite small sponsorships from local companies in West Fargo and Moorhead, it's nothing big.

"It's all relatively new here," Ray said.

"In a perfect world, there would be hundreds of us out there, and we would all be competing for the top spot,” Nelson said, adding that the trio relies on Frostival and images of their work to submit to the national level.

A far more complex undertaking than simply rolling snow around, snow sculpting requires cubes to be formed which are then filled with snow, Nelson said. Artists then stomp it down by foot and repeat the process until the cube is packed tightly with snow.

"It takes a lot of logistics, getting people lined up," Ray said. "The harder the better. A perfectly done cube would be like carving marble."

Handmade tools, such as sharpened shovels and spoons, are a necessity, Nelson said, noting they sometimes use a steak knife for the finer details.

Zeis, who is a sculptor by trade, also teaches ceramics at Plains Art Museum and runs the Mothership Workshop where he crafts custom furniture and custom art works. He started a GoFundMe to help the artists with costs traveling to and from the national competition.


“We’re still struggling to at least support our travels," Nelson said. "It takes that community to start thinking about it as a public art piece."

As of noon Sunday, Jan. 21, they had raised about $1,540 out of an $8,000 goal.

If the three friends win the national tournament in Lake Geneva, they will get the opportunity to go to an international tournament.

The snow sculptors plan on having a demonstration at the Viking Ship Park at Hjemkomst Center on Saturday, Jan. 14. The event will start at noon and will be free to the public.

“It will be an easy way to see some of the tricks and basic tools of the trade that you need to get going" Nelson said. "We’ll have a stomping party to pack the snow, and there will be food and beer and sponsorships."

Being an artist or sculptor is not a requirement, Nelson said. "If you like working with your hands, you will come up with something fun."

C.S. Hagen is an award-winning journalist currently covering the education and activist beats mainly in North Dakota and Minnesota.
What To Read Next
Get Local