As a sixteen-year-old Simon Beck (1969* – 1974 Edgarley and Kingweston) used pure stamina, a map and compass to win the 1974 British Orienteering Championships. After studying engineering at Oxford University then becoming a map-maker it wasn’t until much later on in his life that all his skills came together in one inspiring moment and the world began to sit up and take notice of this quintessential English eccentric.
While living in French ski resort of Les Arcs in 2004, Beck suddenly decided to make up his own unusual form of exercise by walking in snow to make strange and beautiful drawings from the world of geometry. He strapped on raquettes (snow shoes) to his feet and went out walking. In the fresh snowfall often on frozen lakes it is the sheer size and use of the land’s contours as a canvas that make the pictures so mesmerizing. The Huffington Post regularly features his work, his Facebook groupies nearly number 40,000 while photographs of his work – reminiscent of crop circles – regularly go viral. In one such emailer entitled ‘Snow Quilts!’ the artist wore a Millfield School athletics vest and as an Old Millfieldian (1989*-1991; Portway) and someone who used to wear that vest as if it was painted on my body, my first thought was: Is that an old school vest? Quickly followed by: That guy must be freezing! Those pictures are stunning! How did he do that? I must find out. So I did and discovered how only armed with a compass and a clothes line Simon Beck has founded an original and very cool new form of self-expression – Snow Art.
How long were you at Millfield for and which house were you in?
I went to Edgarley age 11 in 1969 and after two years went to the senior school at Kingweston for three years then I was a day-boy.
What were your defining moments, memories and connections with people (fellow students and staff) from your time there?
The best thing that happened was getting joint second prize for effort and progress in soccer. I was never good at it but would very much have liked to been. I was also the British Orienteering Champion which at the time I didn’t realize was going to play such a big part in my life. What I needed was some sensible advice such as, “Look kid, orienteering is always going to be an important part of your life, you can be a happy teenager and student and entirely successful in adult life if you set your sights a bit lower; you don’t have to try to get into Oxford just because you are brainy enough to get through their selection procedure”. I wish I’d know that at the time but still these things have a way of coming around.
How has Millfield impacted on your life would you say?
I feel that the school has the right attitude that sport should be at the centre of people’s lives, the older you get the more your physical health impacts on your overall wellbeing. There is absolutely no point in having loads of money if you can’t enjoy it. Our culture seems to be full of old people who have money, nice houses and cars and stay in posh hotels et cetera but never seem to be happy.
How old is the vest in the picture and how come you’re still wearing it?
It is 40 years old, I don’t wear it other than for photos. I got it out on that occasion to see whether anybody from Millfield would recognise it and get in touch and you did!
I think for me it is the ephemeral nature of the work that is very moving, what is it for you that moves you to make these pieces of art over lakes that might crack, in the cold and on sore feet?
Well, the cold is only a problem at the end of the day when it is necessary to change my footwear so I can ski home. Sometimes I take the easy option and walk back leaving my skis behind. After ten hours doing the drawings yes I get sore feet and walking in rigid footwear is the least uncomfortable way to exercise. There is no danger of the ice breaking provided one avoids known weak areas. To my mind the work is not ephemeral provided I get good photos of it. No, photos are not the real thing, but most people will only see most of the art they ever see, in photos. For many people the fact it is ephemeral is a good job because nature will undo it, so if you don’t like it you don’t have to put up with it for long. The snow does not belong to anybody and it doesn’t belong to the snow artist. It is, as a minority have described it, a form of graffiti, but nature will surely clear it up, usually sooner rather than later.
Using snow as your canvas gives the work a deeper resonance than a lot of art around today due the contrast with all the exact mapping elements of your process – machine v nature – but also because it taps into global warming, ancient symbolism and spirituality as well as the craft community who call them snow quilts! How conscious of this were you when you started out?
That is a load of gobbledygook. It is just a different way to draw something. Then again the drawing interacts with its surroundings and I would give that as the surprise discovery. The drawing becomes part of the landscape and vice versa. I think part of the reason they make for such good photos is that they are done in the most featureless bit of snow one can find. The sort of place that photographers would regard as a bit of boring foreground and would try to avoid it by placing something else in the foreground or zooming in to more distant detail. So something dull is replaced by something of interest and the landscape is enhanced.
What are you favourite designs and why?
Those that require the least amount of careful measurement. The bit I like most is the last stage doing the shaded areas. The most enjoyable drawings to create are those that consist of all curves and medium sized shaded areas. The ones that look best are those with fractal edges although these are tedious to create. I am so tired of doing the edge of the Koch curve that I intend to teach others how to do it even though I will be giving away useful trade secrets! Still, you don’t get something for nothing, and I am looking forward to travelling to interesting new places to promote products and tourism and movies.
I also liked this comment you said on your Facebook page: “I hope to spread the message the mountains and snow are beautiful and worth preserving, and there are better things in life than spending so much time doing things you don’t want to so that you can spend money you haven’t got (yet) to buy things you don’t need to impress people you don’t like.”
I have always felt that too many people place too much emphasis on what they own rather than what they spend their time doing.
Have you always thought like that? What are the significant moments in your life that have brought you to this viewpoint today?
I think so. Children are expected to play and enjoy themselves, adults have to see a purpose in what they do. I get tired of being asked why I do this or that. We don’t need to rationalise what we spend our time doing. We live in the leisure age where machines do most of what is necessary, such a pity so many of us become victims of our own greed, especially when this “more is better and growth is great” attitude is steadily damaging humankind’s collective home (the Earth) and may well bring about a crisis where the Earth will no longer support more than a fraction of the number of humans who are trying to live on it.
Many people have asked about the possibility of publishing a coffee table book of your drawings. Are there any plans for this?
There are plans, and I am starting to think about publishers. At present I am working on getting together a collection high quality photos in time for Christmas 2015. I have a great drawing of the top of the tower of St Mary’s Church in Taunton Somerset. I hope to get some big names involved in selling Christmas cards worldwide to raise funds for the bell restoration and rebuilding the second tower.
Find more about Simon Beck and like his stunning snow art on his Facebook page
Keep in touch with your old skool connections at the Old Millfieldian Society website
Stay warm this winter and buy a Millfield School athletics vest from the school shop