The Snow Gods of Astoria Park

A pair of artists turn the white stuff into giant sculptures

Marios Tzavellas and Melissa Vadakara with one of their sculptures. (Photo by Christopher Alvarez for NY City Lens)

Sunday afternoon, hours before avid chest-pumping football fans got together to eat hot wings and watch Super Bowl LV, joy was in the air at Astoria Park in Queens, despite the frigid temperatures.

That day, Queens was hit with the second New York snowstorm of the month, and 5.3 inches was enough to have fun in a  winter wonderland. A bobsleigh-friendly path with bumpy humps was formed atop the perfectly white sheet that covered Astoria Park. A human centipede of children on highlighter-color sleds took turns swaying down a narrow, twisted, banked, ice track, with jump starts from their dads.  

Later, as snow accumulated to 19.4 inches in the past week, snow sculptures trended. But the real show, with lots of  phone cameras recording it, happened just below The Hell Gate Bridge, on the east side of the park. The builders at the bridge were two passionate artists hidden under layers of jackets, tightened hoods to the tip of their noses, and construction boots. The sculptors behind the winter gear were Marios Tzavellas and Melissa Vadakara. Tzavellas, on the left, in the photo above, has long silver hair, combed back like Thor from The Avengers, with a short black mustache and a spiky white beard. Vadakara, his snow buddy, was not letting the snow beat her, tying back her black hair and bundling up in a military green jacket. 

“The first time our gloves were ripping off at the seams and we didn’t have a shovel,” said Vadakara. “Going at it for eight hours with bare hands was miserable.”

“It was a mess,” Tzavellas said. “But I had to keep going. When you start something, you need to finish it.” 

(Photo courtesy of Melissa Vadakara)

 

What they’re referring to with “the first time” is a period around Christmas, when New York City was piled with 10.5 inches and they made a six-foot snow god, whose face was encircled with an icy mane of curls, a carrot dangling from the right side of his lips, like  a cigar. 

“Some people say it’s a snow god, others a Greek god,” he continued, but for Tzavellas, it could have been anyone.”He looks a bit like my grandfather,” he said, “because he was a priest.” 

Their second snow piece, on February 1,  was a bit more planned. Vadakara and Tzavellas first sketched the female version of Frozone from The Incredibles, standing at seven feet tall with a 20foot-long ice trail behind her, before bringing it to life on the day that a foot of snow fell. However, no shovel this time either, and water seeped through their Timberland boots for six hours.

 

But this time, the third time—on February 7th—was the charm. This time  they came prepared with a shovel and two new pairs of gloves to build their third sculpture of the year, dedicating it to the people who suffered hardships brought on by the pandemic. After filling up a hole in the back of his snow chair for an hour, so the figure could stick and form its shape, a 6 1/2-foot snowman emerged of one of the outstanding figures in the history of medicine, the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates, holding a Rod of Asclepius, a serpent-entwined rod a symbol of healing and medicine. Hippocrates was completed to “take care of the park and watch out for everyone’s health,” said Vadakara. Finishing in record time—five hours, an hour less than their previous piece and three hours less than their first—the duo felt accomplished. 

(Photos by Christopher Alvarez for NY City Lens)

What started this sculpture building trend? It was Vadakara’s desire to show her recent friend how to live life.

Tzavellas, 52, hails from Himarë, Albania, and came to America just two years ago. His artistic journey began long ago,  since “I can remember myself,” he says. His talent led him to attend the Academy of Fine Arts in Tirana before moving to Greece. Then “Holland, France, and around.”

With his specialties in oil, watercolor, and sketches, Tzavellas’ work  has been featured at various galleries in Athens, Kerkyra, Preveza, and Tirana. The artist has also taught in Rotterdam and Amsterdam, and has created sculptures for a traditional apokriatiko carnival in Chalkida, Greece.“I have been drawing and painting since I was 11, and I won’t stop,” he says.  

When Tzavellas first arrived in New York in 2018, he was on a mission to find his family— “some brothers of my father.” 

“It was my dream to come too,” Tzavellas added.

Tzavellas had not played with snow, meanwhile, and when Vadakara first learned this, she was not going to let him get by another year without having some fun with it. While sitting on an old, cracking park bench by the water, “he told me he’s never made a Snowman, and I was like ‘you really didn’t live life until you’ve made a snowman.’”  

For the 27-year-old Vadakara, who is of South India descent, art was never an option to pursue as a profession but that didn’t stop her from doodling underneath classroom and library desks. “My parents are doctors and it’s a very strict household because they were all valedictorians who got into medical school,” Vadakara said. “So they expect me to be a doctor too.” Vadakara says she resisted but she did genuinely like the idea of helping others and eventually got accepted into a seven-year medical school program at the New York Institute of Technology but transferred a year later to the college of New Jersey as a psychology major, while taking all the other pre-med courses on the side.

Vadakara recalls one birthday wish that her mom granted her when she was 15 years old—going to Jacob K. Javits Convention Center for the New York National Portfolio Day. And there her work earned her a full ride to the Tyler School of Art and Architecture program at Temple University in Pennsylvania. “I remember just getting back into the car and yelling, ‘Yo! I did something awesome,’” recounted Vadakara, shooting her hands up, reenacting the scene. Unfortunately, her dad did not approve, she said, and no further discussion was allowed.

It’s been six months since Vadakara and Tzavellas became neighbors and met, and Vadakara is grateful for her new friend, in part because she’s never worked with another artist before.

“I like to communicate because I’ve never really worked with another artist before,” she said. “But he’s in the zone, he’s in the process.”

“Now I just feel the snow and get many ideas,” Tzavellas said.  “I’m in the moment.”

 

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