Miki Mathe: Snow sculptor extraordinaire

January 10, 2011
The Mathes’ basement-turned-woodshop is filled with projects Miki and a group of friends work on every week. BY KARA NUZBACK

Every snowfall, Miki and Susan Mathes’ neighbors case the couple’s front yard, eager to see what Miki has sculpted from the frozen vapor. After December’s blizzard, it took the Milton resident three days to shovel together enough snow to fashion a polar bear.

“They look forward to it, and I enjoy doing it,” Miki said. Over the years, Miki has sculpted freshly fallen snow into Santa Claus, elephants, frogs, wolves, seals and Peanuts characters like Snoopy and Woodstock. One year, an unexpected April snow inspired Miki to sculpt an Easter Bunny.

“A lot of whimsy goes into his work,” Susan said.

The bear has melted, but inside, the Mathes’ home is still brimming with evidence of the holiday season. Susan is beginning to put away a collection of nutcrackers that would knock Tchaikovsky’s socks off. Every bit of space unoccupied by garland or a nutcracker contains pieces carved by Miki.

Miki used his experience as a wood carver to complete his first snow carving in 1967 – a sculpture of King Tut. The work sat proudly in front of his Hockessin home, where he raised two sons and a daughter before moving to Wagamon’s West Shores in 2007. Last February, Miki left a sculpture of Minnie Mouse in front of his former home, now owned by his youngest son, Andy, as a gift for his newborn granddaughter, Hayden.

Miki said sculpting snow is much like carving wood. He begins with a large pile of snow and takes away until he achieves the desired shape. His work in the snow is done mostly by hand, though at times he also uses gardening tools or a piece of wood.

Miki began carving wood at age 8, a short time after conflict over his homeland, Transylvania, led his family to seek refuge in Newark in 1950. Miki was fascinated by cowboys and asked his father for a pistol. He father responded by giving Miki a comic book containing a picture of a Colt Peacemaker, a coping saw, a new pocketknife and a piece of wood.

“He told me, ‘make your own,’ so I did,” Miki said. Miki carved for 30 years before taking his first instructional woodcarving class. Now, he said, he attends a class every year or two with a master carver. He has even begun teaching a group of 15 neighbors, all good friends, who meet in his woodshop basement every Thursday afternoon to carve, joke and talk politics.

“How often can a group of people talk politics with sharp objects in their hands?” Miki joked. Becoming serious, he said, “I couldn’t be more pleased. They do great pieces.”

His woodcarvings include furniture, holiday decorations and string instruments, but many are small caricatures, which Miki said he enjoys more than realistic carvings.

“If my knife slips and I lop off the side of the guy’s nose, I don’t have to start over,” he said. Susan often paints the characters, except those made from exotic woods, like butternut and mahogany, which Miki finishes with a stain to expose grains in the wood.

Though Miki does not often sell his pieces, his work can be seen on the ornate recreation of the Kalmar Nyckel, the ship that brought the first Swedish settlers to Delaware in 1638. Among his contributions to the ship, which makes frequent summer visits to Lewes, is a carving of the official seal of the city of Kalmar.

“I was very honored to be a small part of something that represents the history of Delaware,” Miki said. His signature, along with all workers on the ship, was carved in the last plank to be put in place before the ship’s maiden voyage in 1998, he said.

“It meant something because Miki came here on a ship,” Susan said.

“I just love doing things with my hands – building stuff, making stuff,” Miki said. An employee of DuPont for 41 years, Miki often traveled for work. He recalled a flight that was unexpectedly delayed for several hours. A group of children waiting for the flight began getting antsy, he said, so Miki sat on the floor and made each child a jumping origami frog. The children lined up the paper creatures and had a frog-jumping contest, pleasing them and their parents until the flight was ready to depart.

“He entertains children at airports across the world,” Susan said.

An avid fisherman, Miki said he and Susan long planned to retire in Milton. When not catching fish at Indian River Inlet, Miki said, he can be found working on wood projects with his neighbor, Ed Roskos, or riding horses at Singletree Stables outside of Seaford.

“Once I gave up motorcycling, I had to find something else to do,” Miki said.

Learning to horseback ride was part of his bucket list, Susan said, recalling his early enthrallment with cowboys.

Since learning to ride horses, Miki began volunteering for Southern Delaware Therapeutic and Recreational Horseback Riding, a nonprofit organization that uses riding as a form of therapy for people with physical and emotional challenges. Miki and Susan also contribute to the annual Cape Henlopen Educational Foundation Winterjam fundraiser, which supports programs for area schools.

When asked what shape the next snowstorm will take in his front yard, Miki said he never knows what he will sculpt until he piles a mound of snow. Since retiring, Miki said he lives by one rule: “Growing old is mandatory. Growing up is optional.”