By Leah Scalzadonna
Early on a winter morning, when the temperature is between 30 and 50 degrees, Robert Schott, 58, prepares to build. He’ll gather a ladder, a tree limb saw, a straight edge garden shovel and a yardstick. Next, Schott will don a pair of liner gloves, then a pair of winter gloves, and then a pair of long rubber gloves to protect his hands. After grabbing a pitcher of water, Schott will head outside to his front yard, covered with fresh snow, and start to sculpt.
Schott, a graduate of Rochester Institute of Technology’s graphic design program, has been creating massive snow sculptures on the front yard of his Cranford, N.J. home since 1997. At first, he modeled his sculptures after plastic toy animals, mainly dinosaurs and frogs, which he would buy from a Michael’s craft store, Schott said.. After a few years, he started to build without models. Now Schott creates grids on paper, using an inch of paper to represent a foot of snow. He doesn’t know the exact weight of snow, but he estimates that he uses between two and three tons. It’s backbreaking work for one tall, thin man, more akin to hard physical labor than a leisurely hobby.
“I look for shapes that sit square on the ground and don’t have limbs,” Schott said. “Anything that sticks out will break once the snow starts to melt.”
In recent years, Schott’s created a Snoopy resting on his dog shed, which he said was perfect timing, since the snow fell right before Christmas. He’s also built a full-size Mini-Cooper, featuring LED headlights, with Thelma and Louise driving off a cliff in the front seat. Most recently, Schott crafted a 14-foot Olaf from the movie “Frozen” in the winter of 2015.
“Olaf was by far the most popular,” Schott said. “The kids loved it. I had thousands and thousands of people stream by to look at him.”
Schott’s location also helps. His stately, red brick home is smack in the middle of the town, on the highly busy Springfield Avenue. It’s directly across the street from Cranford High School and down the road from Brookside Elementary School. Drivers will stop in the middle of the street to take pictures and call out to Schott from inside their cars.
“People knock on my door all the time,” Schott says earnestly. “They ask to take pictures and want to know about the sculpture. I welcome it.”
In addition, Schott receives fan mail each winter, mainly from former Cranford residents, he said. However, he said spectators and reporters from as far as Brooklyn will come by to see his creations.
“It’s part of what makes Cranford great,” said resident Suellen McNamara, who’s lived in Cranford since 2001. “He’s definitely something of a local legend.”
Schott agrees wholeheartedly, proudly accepting his legendary status.
“People used to look at me cross-eyed,” Schott said with a laugh. “But now they know.”
According to Schott, in earlier years, his three children, Tyler, Karli, and Julie would help him gather the snow. Now, they’re all grown up. Tyler and Karli have moved away and have full-time jobs. Julie, his youngest, is in her final year at Penn State. In a 2015 article with NJ.com, Tyler referred to his dad as the artist and himself as the laborer.
“I’m not always on my own,” Schott said. “Last year, I created a Facebook page at 9 a.m. to ask for help. I called it Cranford Snow Sculpture Roadies. I had ten neighbors and kids come to help.”
Building a snow sculpture requires an assembly line of sorts, according to Schott. The first step is to build a giant pile of snow. Then, Schott starts to sculpt the base. As his work grows, he’ll climb a ladder and use a shovel to toss the snow to the top of the sculpture. He uses the tree limb saw to shave edges, and the yardstick to measure. As for the rest of it, he uses items he finds in his house.
Olaf’s eyes, for example, were two Gatorade bottles wrapped in black plastic. His nose was an umbrella wrapped in felt, his eyebrows were weather strips and his buttons were black garbage bags, which Schott held in place with garbage bag buttons.
“He’s very creative,” McNamara said.
Schott agrees, claiming his gift is his ability to give something a second life. After Olaf began to melt, Schott rearranged the snow to look like Olaf was melting as the character did in the movie. As Snoopy began to droop, Schott tossed on a beach umbrella and a surfboard, making Snoopy out on the beach. Most impressive, however, is the twelve-foot teddy bear, which Schott shaved into a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle.
Schott does more than just snow, however. This Halloween, he covered his windows with candy corn posters and taped candy corn balloons all over his front yard. Schott owns a window poster company, WoWindow Poster, which sells posters for Halloween, Christmas, the Fourth of July and more.
If there’s a substantial snowfall this winter, Schott has a few cards up his sleeve. His current ideas include a Lincoln Memorial, Coca-Cola polar bears or a giant Minion. Nevertheless, he is open to suggestions.
“If I feel down and go out there, it’s really uplifting for my soul,” Schott said. “If I can create smiles, it’s worth it.”