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How a Falls Church Snow Sculptor Is Preparing for the Big Storm

"We usually don’t get so much advance notice,” Walter Crain says.
How a Falls Church Snow Sculptor Is Preparing for the Big Storm
Walter Crain, "Snowde Miller," 2010. All photographs courtesy Walter Crain.

While the rest of us stock up on canned goods and batteries as the big snowstorm nears, architect Walter Crain looks forward to breaking out his snow gloves and masonry trowel. These items, along with the occasional teaspoon, make up the arsenal of tools that Crain uses to create his larger-than-life snow sculptures, on a lawn across from Falls Church’s Beech Tree Elementary School.

Lion and Lamb.
Lion and Lamb. While Crain completes his work during the day, he photographs them at night to capture more detail.

So how is Crain feeling about the 12-20 inches of snow forecasters believe may fall? “Anticipation. I can’t believe it. We usually don’t get so much advance notice.”

Walter Crain has been turning snow to sculpture for almost 20 years now. His first was Trixie the Triceratops in January of ’96. Crain remembers the Great Furlough Storm warmly. “Almost 18 inches,” he tells me.

Trixie the Triceratops, 1996.
Trixie the Triceratops was Crain’s first snow sculpture nearly 20 years ago during the Blizzard of ’96.

To amass enough clean snow for his creations, Crain often “steals” from his neighbors’ sidewalks and driveways, lugging it back to his own yard on a toboggan. At 51, this is now the hardest part of the process. “My knees hurt and my back hurts.”

Once he’s liberated the snow, the clock starts ticking. Working from photographs, Crain begins the rounds of piling and packing, shaping and smoothing. And he has to do it quickly.

The Beetle.
Crain created this VW classic to scale in front of his house. When it began to melt, he transformed the remnants into a beetle insect.

“It has to be above freezing, but not so warm it starts to melt. And it has to be clean. If there is a twig or a speck of dirt, the snow around it melts.”

When the snow isn’t falling, Crain is the owner of WSC Design, a home design firm. For his snow work, though, he prefers animals and cars. Crain’s favorite piece is a large sculpture of a cat chasing a woodpecker across his front lawn. The bird assailing a tree he created on January 20, 2005. When it snowed again a week later, he added the cat.

walter-crain-cat-woodpecker
Cat chases Bird, 2005. The sculpture was created over two days about a week apart.

“I take the picture of it, and it starts melting. That’s the nature of it. But in the mornings, the bus drivers slow down [in front of my house] and the children look out the window. That’s great.”

When I ask what he has planned for this winter, if the weather is on his side, Crain grows suddenly coy. “I’ve thought about a sphinx or the pyramids. I always have a few ideas in mind, but you never really know how much snow you’re going to get.”

Terpie the Turtle
Terpie the Turtle. The upside of the inevitable melting process? “Your memory of it is probably better than it was,” says Crain.

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Contributing Editor

Amanda joined Washingtonian in January 2016. She has written about Maryland brewery Flying Dog’s First Amendment fight, pored over Hillary Clinton’s emails, and come clean about owning too much stuff. She lives on H Street. She can be reached at [email protected]