Editor's note: The Daily Herald asked local artist Fran Volz to write the following essay.
My name is Fran Volz. You may have seen the snow sculptures in my front yard along Arlington Heights Road over the past 20 years and wondered, "Who is this guy?"
The Daily Herald has asked me to tell you a little about myself.
As this year's creations melt away with the season, I want to say thank you to all who honked their horns, waved and maybe even pulled into the driveway to take pictures.
Some call what I do a labor of love. Others talk about my talent. All I know is that I like to bring people a little fun and entertainment.
Did I go to school for this? No, but you've all been part of my training, as I had no sculpting experience until you witnessed my first "snowman" in January 1987. It was Smurf, the cartoon from TV.
Why do I do this?
It's a way of sharing with everyone what I feel inside. Surrounding myself with positive, happy people and having faith in God inspire me to give. But it's a two-way street. I get just as much joy out of creating and entertaining as people do looking at the creations.
Realizing the attraction of these snow figures after that first winter, I wanted to continue creating when the weather was warm. Since I liked to draw and paint as well, I was at a crossroads: two-dimensional art or three-dimensional?
There are plenty of watercolor and acrylic painters, and most of them also sketch. So I chose three-dimensional art - sculpting.
Passers-by have witnessed sculptures springing up in my yard made of more permanent materials: plaster, Fiberglas, foam, even cement. I asked my friend, local sculptor Joe Burlini, about bronze, and he introduced me to a Deerfield sculptor schooled in the process. I became the latter's apprentice and learned the technique, and the 8-foot-tall William Dunton statue in downtown Arlington Heights was my first endeavor in bronze.
My preference is realism in figurative art, although Arlington Heights has selected an abstract piece I designed for the newly refurbished Veteran's Memorial Park. They're raising funds for a 13-foot-tall bronze statue of intertwining vertical flames. The piece is called "The Eternal Flame" and will commemorate the sacrifice of our veterans.
Thes types of projects are what I do the rest of the year. During the lean times I do residential handyman work: painting, tiling, plumbing, electrical repair, etc. So if you'd like to have me over, clog up your sink and call.
Building a business
I had been making sculptures in my front yard for a few winters when someone told me of a snow sculpting competition in Rockford. I competed there with a team a couple of times. I also thought it would be great to have a similar event closer to home.
With the help of some friends, I formed Snow Visions Inc. in 2004. I designed and built custom equipment - researched, organized and coordinated the entire event. We've held the competition in Rolling Meadows, Schaumburg and Mount Prospect.
But to reach the maximum number of people, I knew downtown Chicago was its destiny. For the past two years we've partnered with the Mayor's Office of Special Events for a larger event called "Snow Days Chicago."
Perhaps you've seen the donation bucket in my yard. Those contributions allow me to buy equipment - gloves, a shovel, snow boots, etc. It's also a way to see how many people stop by and the popularity of a sculpture: If people really like it they contribute more.
Some have asked about the for-sale sign in front of my house. I only rent here. From time to time these properties have been put up for sale. However, in this economy, no one knows what may transpire.
I was born in Menasha, Wis., the fifth of 10 kids. My devout Catholic parents named us after saints - Mary, Anthony, Louise, Margaret, Francis, etc.
My dad by nature was structured and methodical - perhaps out of necessity with that many kids - but also fair. Mom was more gentle and emotion-driven. We moved to Mississippi in the late '60s, then Des Moines in 1975.
The four boys shared one bedroom with army-cot bunk beds. My six sisters were split between two bedrooms. We were a fun family - lots of energy, games, practical jokes and teasing. We only had one black-and-white TV (a vote was taken to select a particular show); one family car; and one phone line (with a three-minute limit per call). For Christmas, we got family games instead of individual gifts.
I was a shy kid with lots of energy and a tendency to get into trouble. One release was spending hours in my dad's workshop creating woodworking and electronics projects, fixing bicycles or an old boat motor. I raised pet mice and would make "family tree" charts of the colors of the offspring. Another outlet was drawing cartoons.
I also found that these creative activities made me stand out among my siblings and helped me make friends at school. With my practical jokes and sound effects, I became known as a class clown. By entertaining people, I learned the dynamics of "pleasing a crowd."
In many ways the snow sculptures in my yard are an extension of these early years. Again, I find it's a shared experience. I get just as much joy out of creating and entertaining as people do looking at the creations.
Some tough times
I graduated magna cum laude from college, and went on to honors in the Air Force. But my life hasn't always been a bed of roses. I've been estranged from my family, fallen on hard times - even been homeless. As close-knit as we all were, my dad had a final rule: after high school you were on your own. Don't come back, just visit once in awhile.
Even though I understood it intellectually, the family was my bedrock. I loved them. I took it hard, feeling abandoned and worthless.
As I continued in the Air Force they moved again, to Kentucky. Where was home for me anymore? Along with this and trying to figure out the meaning of life at the age of 18, nothing made sense.
It finally took a herculean effort to learn to let go: to find new loved ones, understand and trust my faith in God. I knew I had something to offer and somehow make people happy. I reached down deep. Through my art and other creative endeavors, I've met so many people and made so many friends. I'll never forget what happened, but am glad I was able to make lemonade from lemons.
I'm totally looking forward to creating even more ventures, so stay tuned.
• You can view more pieces by Fran Volz at FranVolzStudios.com.