Have you heard? There have been several bear sightings in Central Park this past week.
Snow bears, that is.
Behind these sculptures is Heide Hatry, aka “Snow Banksy.”
An artist for 17 years, Hatry came up with this idea by chance. She was walking around the Central Park reservoir when she came across a large snow pile. Her initial idea was to form it into a cat sculpture for her daughter. “I started to make it, and it looked rather like a bear. I thought ‘Oh, ice and bear, snow and bear — that’s just like a polar bear!’ That’s much better than a cat!” Heide said. “Then I continued and made another one, and another one, and another one and that was the start.”
As Hatry continued to build snow bears, she realized they were garnering a lot of attention — and smiles — from passersby.
“I really missed the smiles of people in the last months, and I appreciated it so much that everyone was happy with this tiny, tiny little thing,” she said. “I thought I could make a few more cubs, even sweeter and that might make them even more happy.”
Snow Banksy is not just cutesy, either. The polar bear sculptures are intended to spread awareness about climate change. Signs next to the bears say: “Let us Chill,” and “Mommy, what is a carbon footprint?”
The latter is one of the phrases Hatry hears most frequently when people stop to admire the bears. Most children, she said, end up asking their parents about carbon footprints, which turns into a conversation on climate change. Knowing the impact these bears have on the next generation, Hatry restores the bears nightly.
“I thought they were really cool because it literally looks like a polar bear,” said Audra, age 9. “That one is like a kid polar bear asking his mom something, it’s a question about a carbon footprint.”
Paul Mathews stopped by to watch Hatry at work and take pictures; the bears have gotten around on Instagram lately. “I knew the species of polar bears were endangered,” said Mathews “Anything that’s beautiful and attractive can convey the message way better than the negativity we sometimes have.”
Hatry’s work usually leans into shock value to get people’s attention. In one project, she dumped meat and intestines from a slaughterhouse in front of a bookstore she owned in her native Germany. The goal: Get people to think about their meat consumption. “It stank. It was disgusting, but I wanted to show that we are also doing something disgusting,” she said.
The polar bears could have had a similar fate. At one point Hatry considered dousing them in pig’s blood to make them more eye-catching. However, after seeing people’s reactions, Hatry changed her mind.
“Nobody wants to see that, and in a situation like this, with the virus and and everybody is having different problems, either financial problems, relationship problems or loneliness problems or whatever,” she said. “I don’t want to remind them of the brutality of life. Everybody knows that life is brutal.”
New Yorkers’ happy reactions to the Hatry’s bears have also given the artist a reason to smile.
“In my entire life, I have not heard so often the words ‘thank you,’ or ‘you made me smile’ as I did in the last 14 days.” she said. “I wouldn’t have expected that to touch me, but it totally, deeply touched me. I found it feels good, really good to give people a moment of relaxation, joy or at least a smile on their face”
While the polar bears crafted by Hatry are temporary — this week’s warmer weather may well wipe them out — that’s kind of the point. If climate change continues at its current pace, polar bears are just one of many species that could become nearly extinct by the end of the century.
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