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Brooklyn artist writes a story in snow, one word at a time

On a cold and snowless Tuesday afternoon, the New York City-based artist Shelley Jackson crouched low on the rocky shore of the Lake Erie Basin, reached out to the nearest ice floe and chiseled the word “of” into the ice in perfect Times New Roman with the sharp edge of an ice scraper.

Then she fell into the lake.

“My word tried to kill me,” Jackson said in a phone interview Thursday about her long-running literature project “SNOW,” which involves Jackson writing a short story one word at a time in fresh snow and posting pictures of the words in sequence to her Instagram feed. Later on Tuesday, having borrowed a male acquaintance’s oversized footwear, she went “shuffling around these stores in these enormous clown-like shoes” looking for replacement clothes.

How some suffer for their art.

For Jackson, whose biggest claim to fame is “Skin,” a short story tattooed one word at a time on the skin of 2,000 volunteers, the act of meticulously etching words from her page-and-a-half story into the snow across at least four winters with her hands is a way of making literature come alive. It is also a love letter to snow itself, something that for Jackson contains infinite strains of beauty but for so many others seems merely a cruel fact of life.

A photo posted by SNOW (@snowshelleyjackson) on Feb 4, 2015 at 6:10am PST

“There are hungry snows made of ground teeth and sacrificial snows made of the breast feathers of songbirds, each tipped with a bead of frozen blood,” her story goes, as read in reverse order on Instagram. Jumping ahead: “There are sorry snows that fall already old, stained and dirt-pocked, and snows so young that they are mistaken for rain. There are depraved snows that make unwelcome advances and cerebral snows that, sifting along surfaces, seek ...”

And there the narrative stops, awaiting the next snowfall before it can be continued.

Jackson’s visit to Buffalo, sponsored by the University at Buffalo’s visual studies English, media study and art departments, was her first foray outside of Brooklyn for the project. Given this season’s below average snowfall, she expects to spend at least one more winter beyond this using her hands or the blunt ends of pens and pencils to sketch out the rest of the story.

What’s so striking about the project, which sounds a bit confounding or even mildly pretentious in the abstract, is the way it intertwines three distinct kinds of physical beauty. On her Instagram, the serifs and sweeps of lovingly designed typefaces meet the grit and grime of city streets and highlight pristine if ephemeral dusting of snow. The words take on meaning far beyond their dictionary definitions, and the story seems to rise beyond the constraints of its own poetry or its author’s literary intention.

A photo posted by SNOW (@snowshelleyjackson) on Feb 22, 2014 at 3:05pm PST

On Instagram or in person, Jackson said, “the story appeals to your sense of touch and to the eye in a way that an ordinary text doesn’t.”

“There’s this sort of competition or friction between the sort of immediate bodily response to the image of the word and your reading it as meaning. And that’s something I’m always interested in: how to push the text a little bit farther toward a material form, how to make the readers feel it in a visceral way and not just in an intellectual way.”

For Buffalonians, it’s the latest in a series of projects designed to embrace the natural condition of living in the Northeast that many Western New Yorkers routinely and loudly despise and others embrace with showboating enthusiasm. Recent examples include Douglas Levere’s gorgeous snowflake portraits, architect Sergio López-Piñeiro’s snow “choreography” project in 2010 and Andy Goldsworthy weather and frost-based (if not exactly 100 percent functional) project “Path” outside the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.

Jackson said the project helps her to see the snow in a new light, to focus on its many shades of beauty rather than the flurry of problems it brings.

“I’m from California. I don’t like winter. It seems like an affront to me, like: How dare the weather do this to me!” she said. “It’s become a way for me to actually wish for snow and wish for winter so that I can keep doing my project. Of course I might catch pneumonia and fall in Lake Erie and things like that.”

But to Jackson and many of her fans and viewers, a dip in a freezing lake is a small price to pay for a project that embraces the written word, the human hand and the unpredictable beauty of nature.


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