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By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily
It was a scene straight out of an action movie: On a hot August day in 2020, a motorcyclist got just THAT much too close to a bison in Custer State Park in South Dakota. (Cue the suspenseful music). Then, BAM! The bison charges, catching the woman with its horns and tossing her around, before she falls, motionless, to the ground.
Without her pants.
Which are still dangling from the horn of the now-docile buffalo.
The video, which went viral shortly after the incident, is a graphic reminder that bison, like all animals in parks such as Custer and Yellowstone, are wild animals, and can be dangerous. Every year, without fail, tourists in Yellowstone National Park take unnecessary (some would say idiotic) chances with wildlife and end up with often serious injuries.
Fortunately, the woman who was attacked in South Dakota recovered from her injuries – but the image of her pants hanging from the bison horn remains a recurring theme for wildlife-lovers around the country.
That includes artist Heather Friedli of St. Paul, Minnesota – who with her friends, Juliana Welter and Kelly Thune, sculpted their own rendition of the iconic image. Their work received the third place award and the “Artist’s Choice Award” at last year’s Minnesota Snow Sculpting competition.
The ladies, who call themselves “Team Kwe” (which means “Team Woman” in the Anishinaabemowin language), are a competitive all women’s snow sculpting team from Minnesota. Friedli told Cowboy State Daily that the trio draws on their native roots to honor their heritage in art.
“Maggie Thompson is Fond du Lac Ojibwe,” said Friedli, “and my sister Juliana and I are first generation descendants of the Little Traverse Bay band of Odawa Indians in Michigan.”
“We Should Totally Do the Pants”
Friedli said the trio ‘tossed around’ other ideas before deciding to depict the Custer State Park incident at the Minnesota State competition in St. Paul last year.
“At first we were just going to do a bison with an eagle, kind of laughing and talking, and then my friend was like, ‘Wait a minute, remember when that bison got that lady that one time a couple of years ago, and it was big on Native TikTok and Twitter and all that?’” Friedli said. “‘We should totally do pants,’ and we’re like, ‘Oh my God, we should totally do the pants.’”
The sculpture received third place at the competition, and was a crowd favorite.
“People loved it,” said Friedli. “And we got Artist’s Choice, too, which is always important, to be recognized by fellow artists.”
Friedli said the top two selections in the Minnesota state competition usually go on to the national contest, held in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. But they got lucky.
“Even though we only got third place last year, because the first place and second place couldn’t go, they had us go, which is really great, because we always love to represent,” she said.
Sculpting With Snow
As a professional artist, Friedli has worked with multiple mediums. Her gallery in St. Paul and her Etsy shop primarily show off her oil paintings – but she’s been sculpting with snow for 15 years.
Friedli said the bison-with-pants sculpture started out as an eight-foot-by-eight-foot cube.
“So it’s big,” she said. “It’s monumental.”
The forms are made out of plywood, which are filled with fresh powder by snowblowers and then compacted by hand… well, feet.
“People are in there stomping the snow down, and it’s an ordeal,” said Friedli.
Friedli explained that in the United States, the use of power tools is prohibited – and because there are no specific tools for snow sculpting, they use items like rasps and chisels.
“Actually, we love to use curry combs, like you would on a horse,” she said, “but on the snow, it really makes a nice surface.”
Designing a Snow Sculpture
Friedl did the initial drawings of this snow sculpture, as the team captain – but when it came time to do the actual sculpting, each teammate took on the part that felt right to them.
“When we approach the block, you never know what’s going to happen,” she said. “We usually all touch all parts of the sculpture.”
It was Friedli, though, that ended up sculpting the pants themselves.
“I have an art school background, but I also am a painter and drawer,” she said. “And so the two dimensionality of those pants actually worked better for my skill set.”
In previous years, Friedl said they have sculpted images honoring their Native heritage.
“Last winter, we did a tribute piece for the missing and murdered indigenous women down in Mankato, Minnesota,” she said. “That one also had a bison, actually – we did a fancy shell dancer with a bison, and we inscribed on the side, ‘To all our stolen sisters, MMIW (missing and murdered indigenous women).’ And then the year before we did a jingle dress dancer, and we won People’s Choice that year.”
Best In Snow
Friedl can claim another honor, as well – in December, she and her sculpting skills were highlighted in a Disney+ TV special called “Best In Snow.”
The competition between amateur teams, aided by professional snow sculptors (including Friedl and fellow snow sculptor Bob Lechtenburg), aired on Disney+ in December of 2022. Each team transformed 10-foot, 20-ton blocks of snow into creations inspired by Pixar, Marvel, Walt Disney Animation, Walt Disney Studios and The Muppets Studio.
“I had designed the piece, it was called ‘The Hecklers’ Revelry’ (from the Muppet Christmas Carol),” said Friedl. “And it’s Stetler and Waldorf with their chains, and instead of them being in the Christmas Carol itself, it shows them having fun on a sled, arms up in the air, looking jolly, and then the penguins that were in the Muppet Christmas Carol are slipping on the snow – it’s kind of a party scene.”
While Wyoming hasn’t been a subject of Friedl’s artwork (yet), she said she’s been to the Cowboy State several times, and is inspired by the landscape.
“I have been invited to create some images based on photos from friends who have been in Wyoming,” said Friedl. “And I definitely have a couple of pictures from these friends from either hunting trips or things like that, that I do plan on doing in the future.”
As for her snow sculptures, she plans to continue to create images that bring joy to her audiences.
“I enjoy humor in art, even though a lot of my art tends to be more serious,” said Friedl. “The piece like this, and with ‘Hecklers Revelry,’ I just love bringing joy to the audience.”
Friedl pointed out that part of the fun of snow sculpting is the performance aspect.
“As we’re creating it, people watch us do it, and I really enjoy interacting with the audience and hearing laughter and having them take pictures,” she said. “And I’m just proud that we were able to represent this humorous moment that I think really struck, especially our indigenous community, here in the United States.”
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