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False starts, right moves: Adams snow sculptor Klaus Ebeling keeps it cool

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Klaus Ebeling, a Jefferson Community College professor emeritus and award-winning snow sculptor, has snow in his voice and in his vocabulary.

“I like the word ‘cool’ and I still have the original meaning on the tip of my tongue,” Klaus said at his home in Adams Center on Friday where he sat in front of his Apple desktop computer.

I had asked Klaus, who is 83 years old, about the word “cool” because he used it in a phone conversation we’d had a week prior. At the time, it struck me as kind of odd because so few people use that word when they talk to me as a reporter.

He used it as slang, in a phrase meant to convey the definition “very good, pleasing, etc.; excellent.” I was floored, especially because, in his delivery, it sounded especially “cool,” as if it had been filtered through ice water from a stream on a ski slope in his native Germany.

Of course, there is the primary definition.

“Cool means lack of heat,” said Barbara, Klaus’s wife of 57 years.

“See, now there’s an old person,” Klaus teased, his cool incrementally shaken.

The Ebelings have been living in a yellow house with a red barn in Adams Center since 1960, where an open exchange of ideas and a love of the arts has obviously given them a full and vibrant life.

The house is full of sculptures and paintings, with a large window that looks out onto the driveway where the message “Hi DF” was inscribed in the snow Friday morning.

I had a feeling I was in for quite a visit when I spoke to Klaus over the phone — what with the use of the vernacular and everthing — and it was confirmed on Friday morning when I showed up to find my initials on his driveway.

As an art professor at JCC, Klaus is one of the original organizers of the Snowtown USA winter festivals that were held perennially in Watertown from the early 1980s until 1997. The festival went dormant when unpredictable weather patterns made it too difficult to plan the event and interest from volunteers waned.

This year, a group of volunteers is trying to bring the event back — an idea Klaus wholeheartedly supports, despite the capriciousness of the weather.

“People always say, ‘What if the weather doesn’t cooperate?’ The weather doesn’t have to cooperate. It was here first. We cooperate with the weather. That’s why we’re having a winter fest rather than a bikini party,” Klaus said.

If you haven’t gotten the idea yet, Klaus is a character. Ceaselessly creative and irrepressibly wily, he no longer creates the large snow sculptures that once made him famous, but he still works diligently, writing ebooks on the subject of snow sculpting and contributing columns — 70 of them — to the Jefferson County Journal.

His focus now is on encouraging people to write down their experiences and memories, as he does, to preserve them for future generations.

He also finds time to write the occasional letter to the Watertown Daily Times, usually when we do something to tick him off.

He wrote a letter to us in November about using the correct terms for snow sculpting.

“We have never conducted a ‘snowman building competition’ at Snowtown USA nor an ice-sculpting competition, but New York State Snow Sculpting Competitions in 1986 through 1989, and 1995-1996, and one year even the National in 1995,” he chided.

Fair enough. It is the man’s life’s work we’re talking about, after all.

But the comments go deeper than just scolding.

Unlike ice sculpting, which requires expensive and dangerous tools, snow sculpting can be done with household items and tools such as gardening hoes and spades and milk crates. It’s a more accessible, and hence, more democratic, form of art.

Klaus specialized in creating what he called “real illusions” in ice and snow.

Using techniques he honed over years of experimentation, he would make it appear as though pyramids of snow were being balanced upside down on a single snowflake or that phone booths that appeared empty on one side were filled with people on the other.

By guiding the eye of the judges and the visitors to a specific side of the sculpture, he would make it appear as though impossible structures were being made possible.

He has won five international first places and placed third or fourth on numerous occasions, he said.

His constant companion over the years has been his wife, Barbara, who provided support, friendship, editing, knitting and companionship in Greenland, Alaska and Europe from Italy to Norway to Sweden, Klaus said.

The pair met when Klaus landed, by chance, in Watertown after a series of what he described as “false starts.”

Klaus had invited the school nurse at Adams high school on a skiing trip in Turin.

The nurse asked Barbara, who was a physical education teacher at the school, to come along because she was “a very bashful girl.”

“She didn’t want to go all that distance with Klaus by herself,” Barbara said.

And what did Barbara think of Klaus when she first met him?

“Oh gosh, I thought he was a very interesting person because he knew so much about everything,” she said.

In a way, Klaus had been prepared for the encounter since leaving Germany a few months before.

“I brought my skis with me when I first came over,” he said.

Now Klaus writes eNewsletters aimed at encourging people to participate in the new Snowtown, offering them advice and education on tools and techniques.

He also tries to find a way to store the digital photographs and writings from a lifetime of creativity and scholarship.

He has changed storage devices four or five times, he said.

With eight decades worth of memories at stake, including a newspaper he created when he was just a boy, I have no doubt Klaus will find a way. If past is prologue, he seems to be quite adaptable.

“In spite of all the wrong starts, I made the right moves,” he said.

Daniel Flatley is a staff writer covering Jefferson County government and politics for the Watertown Daily Times. He writes a column once a week for the local section of the paper. He can be reached at dflatley@wdt.net.

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