Steeped in snow as the island is these days, it’s not uncommon to see the usual drive-by gallery of snowmen dotting the yards and fields of islanders.
Even the non-artists among us find it hard to resist all those free art supplies falling from the sky that call families out from the warmth of the fireside and the big screen TV to a field of untouched powder.
Little do these casual sculptors realize that with each snowman creation is preserved one of the oldest forms of folk art.
There is a commonality in snowmen that extends even to the most non-nostalgic curmudgeon.
Perhaps that is why Freeland artist and collector Johanna Marquis has been collecting snowman figurines for the past
20 years. Her prolific collection is on display now at the Freeland Library .
Marquis said she derives particular pleasure from sharing them with others.
“I hope that it sparks a memory, a hope or a smile,” Marquis said.
That hope has very good odds seeing how deep is the tradition of building men out of snow.
Historically, snowmen have been around for as long as man could shape things.
Even one of the earliest photographs, circa 1845, contains a snowman in its picture.
These facts were discovered after viewing Marquis’ collection, which is accompanied by a quote from author Bob Eckstein’s new book, “The History of the Snowman,” the source of many surprising, humorous and interesting tidbits about sculpted snow.
“Snowmen were once happy people, made by happy people in happy times,” Eckstein writes.
According to Eckstein’s book, there are currently 37,000 snowman items for sale on eBay.
Eckstein chose the subject, he said, because the snowman holds one of life’s mysteries — stories that reveal a dark rich history.
The making of snowmen is a form of folkart that has been carried on since the time of the caveman, he writes, as it is man’s instinct to want to do two main things: to depict themselves in art and to do what man has always done, stack one thing on top of the other.
Snowmen, Eckstein said, have always been a reflection of the period and the issues of the day; a sort of benchmark for the times.
It’s not surprising then that an artist would find Frosty so fascinating.
Marquis and her husband Dick Marquis are professional artists who have lived on Whidbey Island for 25 years.
Dick is a glassblower and she is a painter.
“I began the collection about 20 years ago,” Marquis said. “I’ve always been intrigued by the innocence and fun of making snowmen and snow queens while growing up in the mighty woods of winter in northern Wisconsin.”
Marquis’ collection ranges in media from hand-made snowmen made of clay, wood, felt, soap, glass and plaster to the more commercial plastic Frostys.
“But all of them carry a soul of goodness and a gesture of fun,” she said.
One of her favorites is the “skater” Frosty which she said is a wax production item probably dating from the 1940s.
Although most of the collection is from the United States, Marquis said there are a few that are English pieces made as tiny ornaments for Christmas cakes.
Some are also very old and rare Christmas lights, Marquis said.
Her finest pieces are of contemporary blown glass that have been made by her husband and other colleagues.
“It has since become a tradition in our studio to celebrate the spirit and season by making a ‘frosty run,’” Marquis said.
“I delight in showing the collection at the library because so many stories come out from those who are taken in by seeing so many Frosty’s in one place. The kids are wide-eyed and the adults enjoy a warm memory,” she said.
At the library, Marquis has set out a collection box for unwanted Frostys in hope of saving a few unwanted snowmen hand-me-downs from a certain landfill demise. Marquis would also like to acquire the stories of any such adopted snowmen.
“As a child, I was captivated when I saw large department store windows with extraordinary Christmas displays,” Marquis said.
“I hope to carry on that delight and tradition in some way.”
Marquis collection will be at Freeland Library through December.