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When the weather outside is frightful

Posted by Marcia Dick  January 21, 2011 10:00 AM

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Clay Ellis photos

A shark scene inspired by the ghoulish snowmen in "Calvin & Hobbes."

Once you're a grownup, sadly, everyone kinda hates snow. In Somerville, it means waiting 10 years for the bus, attacking the barricade the plow left at the end of the driveway, frowning at the 23-year-olds who shovel into the street, maneuvering for parking between glaciers and folding chairs, tiptoeing down the road while hating the people on, say, Washington Street who didn't get the walk clear. About the most you can say is it's a good workout as you add rum to your post-shoveling cocoa.

Oh look, and the city just declared another snow emergency.

But though last Friday's cocktail crowd picked its way across Union Square's floes, the next day brought relief: A Jan. 15 shoveling-out event sneakily disguised as a fun time for all.

Tom Sawyer - that is, hacker/maker space Artisan's Asylum and the Somerville Arts Council -organized the open snow sculpture "flash mob," with shovels and barrows provided by the city Department of Public Works.

Half an hour in, a fort was already as high as an end-of-driveway drift. Agonized, prone snowmen and sharks had started to claw out of the ground a la "Calvin & Hobbes." By the cable access building, a bunch of boys sculpted a giant lump of snow atop deep drifts.

(Oddly, a grand, isolated snow castle already standing in nearby Nunziato Park had no connection to the event.)

"Gonzo," an artist affiliated with the New Allston School of Art, rebuffed the conspiracy theory. "I think it's a 'scheme' to get out and have a great time," he said, watching his godsons James and Judge Burgey of Brookline scramble around the snow heap, which was starting to look a lot like a dragon.


Five boys led the charge to build a snow dragon.

James Burgey, 15, told him to quit talking and start helping.

A paw needed refinement. Clearly those bits of dirty ice were meant to be spines and nails. The sides of the beast demanded smoothing, best done not with hands but with the butt of children's extra-large snowpants bought for $3 at the Davis Square Goodwill. One hated to fall for the city's clever, labor-saving trick, but this project, at any rate, wouldn't get the plaza anywhere close to clear.

(And admittedly, arts council director Gregory Jenkins later pointed out that the city does have employees it pays to shovel public space.)

Among the dragon-makers, Jennifer Devine of Malden, 42, put a cup of cornmeal-laced hot chocolate - provided free by restaurant Cantina La Mexicana - in a flaring nostril. Another woman appeared with food coloring to tint the dragon's features. In front of the mouth, a small group built an obviously doomed castle.

(A friend of the author's made but a brief appearance: "More dippy Somerville stuff if you ask me.") Three long-haired boys surveyed their kingdom from the dragon's saddles and slid down the sides -- pardon me: supervised construction. Judge Burgey, 13, tapped at an ice chip with a metal pie server. A man walked by, one of many gawkers. "This neighborhood's getting worse each day - dragons," he tsked.

More quickly than could be imagined, there was little left to do. The three head sculptors agreed to an interview.

"Yes, we were the creators," said Gavin LaWhite of Winter Hill, 11, with 8-year-old brother Owen. They started forming the snout and people just followed. "A medieval scene," LaWhite pronounced.

Despite the cooperation. "It took forever to build," said Loden Devine of Malden, 9. "Like an hour or so."

James Burgey was still examining his tail. "I feel so accomplished in my life right now," he said.

"He didn’t want to come," Gonzo said. "Now he doesn't want to go."

"Tht usually happens when you bring me places," James agreed.

As the cold started to burn and the cocoa ran out, kids abandoned their finished projects, retreating through a gristly snow shark/victims tableau that would make Bill Watterson proud. But a handful of adults - mostly Artisan's Asylum associates- grimly battened down the snow fort's walls as if they knew.

It was inevitable, wasn't it?

As the Fraggle/Doozer conflict once showed, the only thing more primal than the ambition to build is the urge to destroy. The snowballs began to fall.

Short, hard shots from a fort across the way. High, loping lobs from plastic atlatls that briefly disturbed even the nerds discussing science. The Asylum fort-keepers gamely smacked some projectiles back with a shovel blade, which worked wonders until their opponents did it, too.

From the rival fort, young Solana Kokkinogenis of Brighton performed the visual equivalent of a caterwaul. The small, red-clad girl socked her opponents with snowballs, then ran over in a red blur and became the monkey in the asylum, climbing into the fort and wrestling for control of the shovel from a man in a hoodie.

When all had quieted, there was back-slapping and handshakes, and snow all over the plaza, as it began.

Contact Danielle at


Shovels served as shields when the snowballs started flying

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