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Gunflint Trail Historical Society hosts MN-based artist and snow-sculptor Heather Friedli as part of the newly launched Artist in Residency Program

Oct 02, 2023 10:53AM ● By Content Editor

Photo: MN-based artist and snow sculptor Heather Friedli (left) shares some of her painting process with workshop attendees on September 22. All photos by Laura Durenberger-Grunow.

By Laura Durenberger-Grunow - Boreal Community Media - October 2, 2023

Earlier this year, The Gunflint Trail Historical Society (GTHS) and Chik-Wauk Museum and Nature Center (located at the end of the Gunflint Trail in Grand Marais, Minnesota), launched an Artist-in-Residency program, which allows local artists to experience the beauty so many of us know and love. 

Rene’ Block, one of the Gunflint Historical Society Board of Trustee members told Boreal Community Media that the idea for a program came from the purchase of a house. 

The organization purchased a house to be used for seasonal staff, but found it was just sitting empty on the shoulder seasons (typically around April and November). The idea for an artist-in-residency program was proposed as a potential way to better utilize the home. Members of the board started looking into the idea, as well as other models playing out in National Parks like Isle Royale (and other locations), and decided they would give it a shot.

 Chik-Wauk Nature Center

Creation of a new program

The Artist in Residence program task force was created as one of the first steps, which includes two artists and two GTHS Board of Trustee members: Block, Kim Gordon, Kim Dayton, and Bill Douglas. 

The task force determined that as they were launching the program, they would reach out to potential artists who were from Minnesota or had a Minnesota connection, instead of having artists apply. The group is especially interested in emerging artists, and women artists.

“The purpose of the program is to enhance and provide a different take on our mission statement and values, which is to build community by connecting people to the Gunflint Trail, and sharing and preserving the natural and cultural history of the area. Art fits into this really well,” Block said. 

The first artist selected was painter Jack Dant, who completed his residency earlier this year. 

Each artist must stay on site, and complete one act of “community giveback”, which can include a talk, demonstration, workshop, donating and piece of art, or other options.

Dant held a talk at Chik-Wauk, which was very well attended, according to Block. 

The second artist approached to complete a possible residency was contemporary painter and snow sculptor Heather Friedli, who currently resides in St. Paul, Minnesota. If you’re not familiar with her paintings, you may know her as being on the Disney+ snow sculpting holiday special “Best in Snow”, or as a member of Team Kwe, the only all-Indigenous snow sculpting team in the United States (along with her sister and friend).

Friedli accepted the invitation and started her residency in September of this year. 

While the artist must stay on-site, they are able to pick how long of a residency they’d like to complete. Friedli was able to stay for around 10 days with her five-pound furry friend, Tilly.

For the community contribution component of the residency, Heather, who has a background in outdoor education, opted to do a free workshop that was open to the public on field sketching. 

 Heather started her workshop in the Chik-Wauk museum and nature center classroom before bringing attendees outside

10 visitors and locals attended the workshop. Participants got to walk around with Friedli and learn about her process for interpreting and bringing to life a landscape. Heather shared with the group that due to her Anishinaabe culture, she feels a strong connection to nature and is able to convey that connection through emotions and senses onto her canvas. 

“First, I observe. I internalize with all my senses and determine which ones I want to bring into the work. What’s the texture, rhythm, color? What does it mean to be here? Who came before me? I imagine the history of the area. What do I see that makes this place what it is?” she shared with the group. 

After getting a true feel and understanding of a landscape, she starts sketching. 

 Workshop participants spent most of the time outside learning tips and resources from Friedli, as well as receiving valuable feedback

The workshop lasted two hours, and attendees had an opportunity to practice interpreting the landscape, sketching what they saw and felt, learning some of Friedli’s processes for her own artwork, as well as getting feedback from Heather herself. 

Snow Sculpting 

While this particular artist in residency duration was specifically about painting for Friedli, snow sculpting is also a large part of her life. 

In 2007, Friedli moved to Minnesota and started working in outdoor education in Ely. It was during this time she was introduced to snow sculpting as part of the Ely Winter Festival, and has been doing it ever since. 

Since then, she’s been part of many competitions, including the St. Paul Winter Carnival (which is a qualifier for Nationals), and the World Competition (which is held in Stillwater, Minnesota), now as part of Team Kwe (Kwe is an Anishinaabemowin term for woman) which consists of Friedli’s sister and Maggie Thompson. 

Her talent is well known; she is asked to be a backup or a replacement member for other teams fairly regularly. In 2024, she will be part of Team England in the World Competition which takes place in Stillwater, Minnesota. 


A lot goes into the competitions. While the main action happens throughout the actual event, much of the work happens long before that. 

As part of the competitions, all snow blocks for each team are the same; 8’ by 8’ or 12’ by 12’ depending on which event it is, so teams know what size they’re working with ahead of time. 

“You’re required to make a 3D model out of clay, which we submit well before the competition. This prevents teams from drastically altering their designs during the actual sculpting,” she said.  To do this, the team must grid out the design, determine what tools they will need, and then create those tools if they don’t already exist. “Snow is illustrious. It tells a story in 3D. But we also have to take into consideration how to keep the piece structurally sound so it (hopefully) doesn’t break," (which has happened to her and her team before).

When asked what it’s like putting all this time and energy into an art piece that is temporary, she laughed. “I always say that instead of three team members, we actually have four. And the fourth is Mother Nature.” 

“Art forms come and go. We go in knowing that this is temporary and think of it more as performance art, an act of creating and telling stories, and a practice of letting go. And we take lots of photos.” 

Friedli and other snow sculptors are working to bring more awareness to sport - including having it included in the Winter Olympics. 

Artist in Residence Program Next Steps

As for the Artist-in-Residence program, Friedli shared on her Facebook page that during her time with the Gunflint Trail Historical Society, she completed one painting and started seven others. She thanked the GTHS for the opportunity and her family for holding down the fort while she was gone. 

Block shared that the task force will be looking for another artist to complete a residency in April or May of 2024. 

“We’ll be reaching out to another artist. We’re not sure when we’ll be opening up the program for applicants - we’re still figuring out things as we go, but so far, it’s been a great experience. If people are interested in learning more about the residency program, they should stay tuned to our website and social media,” she said. 

To learn more about the Gunflint Historical Society of Chik-Wauk Museum and Nature Center, visit: or 

To learn more about Heather Friedli’s artwork and snow sculpting, visit: Heather also offers open studio hours at her space in Saint Paul. You can find hours and location on her website. 

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