New Brighton brothers gain attention for making unique snow sculptures, raising money for clean water 

“Puffy the Puffer Fish” was built by the Bartz brothers nine winters ago. It caught the attention of WCCO, and soon the brothers were known statewide for their sculptures. Contributed photos

After building snowmen and snow forts outside for years, what was the next thing to build? For the trio of Bartz brothers of New Brighton, it was a puffer fish. They built the puffer fish snow sculpture after returning from a vacation to Florida in 2012, where Austin Bartz, now 25, caught one of the beasts.

“Two weeks after we got back, a big snowstorm hit the Twin Cities,” Austin said. “We didn’t know that it would change our lives more than we ever could have imagined.”

Austin, Trevor (now 23), and Connor (now 21), decided to build a snow sculpture. With the Florida trip and puffer fish fresh in their minds, they decided to build one out of snow. “That was the extent of our discussion,” Austin said, “no drawing, no blueprints, just three brothers with an end goal in mind.”

Without any artistic or drawing ability, according to Austin the teenagers had a six-foot-high Puffy the Puffer Fish snow sculpture sitting in their front yard about eight hours later. The sculpture garnered a great deal of attention, and WCCO-TV  featured the sculpture on their newscasts.  That’s how it all started.

Wally the Walrus. Contributed photo

“(After it was on WCCO), we made a light stand and a viewing station so that people could come check it out for themselves.”

Upping the Ante

Each year, the sculpture has gotten bigger. Puffy is almost a miniature, considering the sizes of the rest of their sculptures. This year’s 22-foot-high, 40-foot whale, in their ninth-year of snow-sculpting is the biggest yet.

The trio has learned a lot about refining the sculptures over the years, Austin said. “We used shovels and chisels, but we also made other tools, like homemade sanders and others to shape and form the show. They don’t sell any of those tools in stores.”

When snow was scarce, they got it from church parking lots, tennis courts, and neighbor’s yards. They also learned to heat the snow. “We filled the garage with snow and heated it for about 40 minutes, which made the perfect ‘snowball quality snow.’”

Finnegan the Fish. Contributed photo

Later they discovered that puffing up the snow worked even better, and required only 10 minutes of heating.

“We had somebody in the garage about 15 hours a day turning and prepping the snow, and making it sticky,” said Austin.

They also make sure they have pristine snow for the outer surface of their sculpture, usually from church parking lots.

Falling snow or warming weather can cause havoc with their sculptures. Austin said it could take four hours to repair after a warm day, and six hours to get everything into shape after clearing snow and smoothing everything out.

They tried using water on the snow several times, with absolutely no success.

Snappy the Turtle. Contributed photo

Each brother has their own specialty in the work, Austin said. “I often do a lot of the shaping, and all the coating to make it smooth, and installing teeth and so on. Trevor does the eyes and eyebrows, and Connor does whatever needs to be done at a certain time.”

Sticking With a Good Idea

After Puffy, the brothers decided to continue the sea life theme, Austin said. “A walrus was going to be easily recognizable but also it is also a creature that we could put our own unique twist on,” and so came Wally the Walrus.

Others that followed, each with the brothers’ “unique twist,” included Sharky the Shark, 16 feet tall, 25 long, and 9 wide, which took 95 hours to complete.

Octavius the Octopus. Contributed photo

Then came 12-foot-high Snappy the Turtle, which took 300 hours to build, and then Octavius the Octopus, 18 feet high, and a 500-hour job. This one was different because, as Austin said, “This year (2016) we wanted to have a bigger impact so we partnered with the organization One Days Wages, to raise money for clean water. Our goal was to raise $10,000 for clean water in Haiti. We raised $17,267. Our favorite features were the tentacle over the front steps, and the tentacle by the street that visitors could walk into.” They were on NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt and Live on the Weather Channel.

For their sixth snow sculpture, they spent 350 hours making Finnegan the Fish, 22 feet tall. The name came from when the tail fell over while we were working on it, thus the name Finnegan was born. We hauled and shoveled all the snow from a nearby church parking lot and our neighbors’ yards.” Finnegan brought in $25,000 for clean water in Malawi, Africa.

Diggs the Lobster. Contributed photo

In 2018, the brothers Bartz almost didn’t get a sculpture done because of the lack of snow. But, as Austin said, “That‘s when Matt Wienzetl and the City of New Brighton stepped in and offered to bring in dump truck loads of snow! Our friends Seth Hanson and Caleb Kroeze also spent many hours helping, and without them it would not have happened.”

That was for building 19-foot-high Diggs the Lobster, named after the Vikings Stefon Diggs’ game winning catch in the NFL playoffs, which also propelled a large increase in the number of visitors.

Slinky the Snail came in 2019, limited again by weather. The brothers began work December 3, but didn’t finish until January 1, with the help of Scenic Grounds landscaping, who brought in three dump truck loads, along with a neighbor using a Bobcat to load snow.

Slinky, at 23 feet tall, took 600 hours of work, and $31,000 in donations were directed for clean water in Vietnam.

Two of the three Bartz brothers stand with this 40-foot long, 22-foot tall snow sculpture of a whale at their New Brighton home. This was built earlier this winter. The brothers have been making unique sculptures the last nine winters. The last few years, the sculptures have turned into a fundraiser for a clean water initiative. Contributed photo

Austin said a hundred people are generally milling around the sculpture on any weekend day, but he doesn‘t know how many people see the sculpture during an entire season.

“People are shocked at how big Walvis the Whale is, and they love it. They see the sculptures on our Facebook page, but when they them in real life, they say they’re a lot bigger than they thought it would be.”

The fact that the sculptures are used as a vehicle to get donations for clean water pleases Austin. “All we have to do is turn on a faucet and clean water comes out. Most people in the world don’t have that.”

People who want to donate for clean water in other parts of the world can check the Bartz Brothers Facebook for information.