Although whales normally migrate down the coasts in the winter, one special whale has found its way to Minnesota this year with a little help from three New Brighton brothers, a little imagination, and a lot of snow.
After 800 hours of sculpting snow, Walvis the Whale sits happily in the front yard of the Bartz family for the public to see. Coming in at a whopping 22 feet tall and 63 feet long, the sculpture is the biggest that Austin, 25, Trevor, 23, and Connor, 21, have ever built. “We couldn’t go an inch more,” says Austin Bartz, as the whale stretches to touch both trees on opposite sides of their front yard.
The whale is a culmination of eight years of practice, making leaps and bounds of progress since their first sculpture in 2012. Eight years ago, inspiration struck the brothers upon returning home to a snowstorm from a Florida vacation. Puffy the Puffer Fish emerged eight hours later, and a tradition began. Since then, sculptures have included a shark, a snail, a lobster, a walrus, and more. Every year, the Bartz brothers (and as of 2018, the help of their middle and high school friends Caleb Kroeze and Seth Hanson) push themselves to build bigger and better sea animals. For example, one of the tentacles on their 2016 octopus went over and around their stairs. This year, Walvis the Whale has a blowhole that releases real smoke. Overall, they spent 300 more hours on the sculpture this year than last year (an extra 12.5 whole days).
Luckily, Austin and Connor have their own landscaping business that allows them to spend essentially their whole holiday season on the sculpture, because of their flexible, self-made schedules. This year, they began working on December 15, and unveiled the sculpture on January 4.
To get their start in mid-December, the crew brought in most of the snow from local church parking lots, as they don’t have enough snow on their parents’ lawn to do the job. However, they don’t begin sculpting immediately: first, they stir the snow in their 90-degree garage before taking it back outside. This way, the snow melts a little, and becomes more moldable and better for packing.
Once the snow is ready, the general shape of the animal is dug out with shovels, using scaffolding in order to keep the snow in place as it re-freezes into the correct shape once it gets tall enough. Then, after it freezes, they use ladders, rock and tree climbing equipment to ensure safe arrival to the top of the sculpture. If necessary, people working at the bottom throw snowballs to the top if it needs more snow.
As they get closer to the finish they begin paying close attention to the details of the sculpture (see the perfect teeth in Walvis’s smile!). “The last few days, we start working on the features like the mouth and the eyes. When we have a few days left, that’s the fun part,” says Austin.
Although spending your holiday season sculpting a giant sea animal sounds like fun, Austin says that the most difficult part of the process is the pressure. “We try to step it up every year, make it a little bit bigger, something new every year…The pressure is the hardest part.” After all, the Bartz brothers have been featured on Ellen’s Facebook page, appeared live on the Weather Channel, and on NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt. The brothers usually Skype live with the Weather Channel every year now too.
But, their efforts go out to more than the delight of local Minnesotans and other news-watchers across the country. Each year, donations that visitors give go to clean water in a different country. In the past, they’ve given to Haiti and Malawi, but this year, they’re giving to Uganda and Niger through One Day’s Wages.
The brothers chose clean water as their cause for a reason. “We were thinking about it and we realized there was a need for clean water. You can’t survive without it. We take it for granted in the U.S., because you just turn on the faucet. It [the cause] pairs well with our sculpture because the snow is made of clean water, and the animals live in the water, so it ties together,” says Austin. Although you can leave however much you like by visiting the sculpture or donating online or leave however much you like sculpture, by giving $25, you can get a picture with Walvis while he is blowing smoke.
Once February 4 hits, for the first time this year, the city of New Brighton is going to come and help them take the sculpture down, whereas it would simply melt in the years past. (Imagine that much snow melting in your front lawn and into the street!) But hopefully, before then, the Bartz brothers will raise $50,000 dollars to the cause.
The brothers plan the sculpture year by year, as the possibility of building at all depends entirely on the weather. For example, if it’s too warm, the sculpture won’t freeze. Or, if it continually rains, they have to protect it from melting. So, keep your fingers crossed that all weather conditions cooperate next year. Now, the sculpture is open for viewing every day from 8 a.m. until 10 p.m. until February 4, so stop by before Walvis is no more. bartzsnow.com