Environmental artist Sonja Hinrichsen displays her unique approach to art, what she calls "snow drawings".

by Jennie Lay, Photos by Sonja Hinrichsen

Steamboat Springs, CO - Sonja Hinrichsen is a force on nature. The environmental artist displayed her prowess during a visit to Hayden’s Carpenter Ranch last winter.  Echoing the stealth of a mountain lion, Hinrichsen left spiraling trails of snowshoe tracks in deep snow along the Yampa River. Her bird-footed patterns crisscrossed meadows and transformed the land- scape. Jets ascended and descended at the nearby airport while crystalline weavings emerged among the willows. And on the ground, her intricate and impermanent snow drawings melded into the landscape as if Mother Nature had always intended them just so. 

In late January, on the brink of Steamboat’s 99th Winter Carnival, Hinrichsen returns to Steamboat Springs to orchestrate a new snow drawing on the Carpenter Ranch – this time with members of the local community. Hinrichsen will create design parameters that let everyone work in unison for two days on one large cohesive snow drawing that will be photographed and filmed. Hay meadows will be re-imagined as a huge canvas. Volunteers will “be like a pen dancing across the stage, leaving a trace as it goes,” Hinrichsen says. 

“Sonja is very light hearted,” says ranch manager Betsy Blakeslee. “It’s an intense art form. She’s very organized. She’s really good at envisioning and using her imagination on the onset. It will be so fun to see her work with a group of people.” 

Hinrichsen, 43, hails from south-west Germany. She landed in California in 1999 for graduate school at the San Francisco Art Institute. The American West enchanted her and the Bay Area became home base. “All my work has become about the American landscape. I just didn’t fit in Germany any more,” she says, noting that as she travels, she aims to map the history and culture of the landscape through her art. 

She has spent a decade grappling with the idea of manifest destiny, that oddly American urge that propelled pioneers to spread across the West by wagon and train, slaughtering native peoples and their cultures, along with the mighty bison, as they settled along the way. “There was so much courage in that, and so much cruelty,” she observes. 

Hinrichsen’s work is ruled by a single thought: “I am nomadic,” she says. 

Colorado Art Ranch appealed to her for just that reason. The roaming nonprofit arts organization travels among Colorado towns to facilitate one-month residencies for visual and literary artists from around the world. Each residency includes a public forum, called the Artposia, to promote conversations about how art and science intersect with land and social issues. Since 2008, Colorado Art Ranch has settled into a regular September encampment at The Nature Conservancy’s Carpenter Ranch. 

The working cattle ranch has housed a range of writers, film makers, painters, sculptors and landscape-scale conceptual artists. Artist Matt Moore chipped away at a plan for one of his large-scale land forms. Carrie Marill painted fleeting bird portraits with stark white backgrounds. Filmmaker Burcu Koray came from Istanbul to write a script about a female rodeo star. Sculptor Amy Laugesen created 30 horses that look as if they were excavated from among China’s Terracotta Army, but are actually steeds inspired by the American Quarterhorse with its roots in Hayden. 

“We’ve attracted a certain kind of artist who is interested in the land,” says Colorado Art Ranch executive director Grant Pound. “This particular residency (at the Carpenter Ranch) seems to be leaning toward artists who are working with the local landforms themselves – and the land issues. It makes sense for where it is. I think we’re going to push that even farther in the future – requesting proposals for artists who want to do things in and around that conserved land.” 

Hinrichsen first arrived here in September 2010. During her residency she mapped the property, hiked, took notes and photos and read about local history. She explored archives for Ferry Carpenter’s stories and anecdotes about the indigenous Utes. Her resulting video installation layered images of the Yampa River, hay meadows and flying geese with emotional, historical and scientific text that was projected on Hayden’s historic grain elevator at Yampa Valley Feeds. “It was a reflection on the history of the area, especially the Utes, mixed with my own impressions of the area,” she says. 

During that fall residency, Hinrichsen was smitten by the Yampa Valley curse. She returned soon after the snow arrived to work in the crystalline landscape. She spent 10 icy days making enormous snow drawings up and down the river and along the low-lying meadows. Using snowshoes and her imagination, she aimed to evoke a natural flow and the meandering of the water. 

“It just felt right to work along the river,” Hinrichsen says. Her drawings were exhausting creative and physical efforts. Working alone, she walked her patterns for seven to eight hours a day. Overnight, a winter storm would roll through and all would disappear. 

“Snow drawings last such a short time. It could be two to three hours, or two to three days,” she says. “They define the landscape and they are defined by it.” 

Snow drawings first crept into Hinrichsen’s inspiration in 2009 while working at the Anderson Ranch near Aspen. Lake Tahoe then saw some of her winter spirals, as did a frozen lake in upstate New York. An installation got skunked by dry weather in northern New Mexico last spring, right about the time Steamboat was crossing our 400-inch mark for the season’s snowfall. 

It came out of play, she says. Over time, she started pre-empting her drawings with sketches on paper. But concepts often changed because her effort is a direct response to the environment, and snow behaves differently depending upon its depth, moisture and texture. Call it the unpredictable “crust vs. fluff” factor. 

Watching Hinrichsen’s process was awe-inspiring, meditative, peaceful and whimsical, says Blakeslee: “She was so focused....It stretched your imagination once you got to see the designs and how they fit into the landscape. It took you to a different place. The perspective of the design became part of nature, even though it was man made. It was in the animal tracks, the mosaic of the forest and the shape of the fields. It became a giant canvas... seeing things from a new perspective.”