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Oakland-Based Artist Creates Grand Scale Snow Drawings in the Sierra

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For the past seven years Sonja Hinrichsen has made snow drawings all over the world. Over time she’s come to terms with the completely unpredictable nature of her work. Though she spends months planning her projects, she can never be sure if the weather will cooperate, until the appointed day arrived. If there’s no snow, there’s no canvas. If the snow is falling, she has to wait out the storm. Even when conditions are perfect and her creation is complete, it’s a race against time to photograph the work before the next snowfall covers it up or it simply melts away.

Snow drawings started as play for Hinrichsen in 2009 during a winter hike in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. Imprinting labyrinthine patterns on the pristine snow as she walked, she would listen to the crunch of her snowshoes and the sound of her breath and be transported to a kind of meditative state. It wasn’t until after her next foray on a frozen river that she got the chance to fly overhead to photograph the results. She was amazed by how impressive the spirals appeared from above, and how much more “canvas” she had covered. Then it struck her, if she involved volunteers, she could create drawings on an even larger scale.

Climate change and fluctuations in snowfall around the world, especially in California, have added to Hinrichsen’s challenge to be in the right place at the right time to create her best work. Ironically, after years of drought-driven, low snow pack in the Northern Sierra, this winter’s El Nino storm system provided near perfect conditions. On President’s Day weekend volunteers from the Bay Area, Reno and nearby Truckee gathered at UC Berkeley’s Sagehen Creek Field Station to help Hinrichsen create her first project in the California. The KQED Arts crew strapped on snowshoes and followed the group as they worked for two days to fill 60 acres of meadowland with spirals of varying sizes and shapes.

Snow drawings at Lake Catamount, Colorado in 2013
Snow drawings at Lake Catamount, Colorado in 2013 (Photo: Sonja Hinrichsen)

The following Monday, as Hinrichsen flew over the meadows with a local pilot to photograph the drawings, the temperature rose to near record levels for February. Just a few days later the snow, along with the drawings, had melted away. But the ephemeral nature of her work is just fine.

“It stays in the photographs and in the memories of the people who participated in it, so it still fulfills its purpose,” Hinrichsen says.

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