Every yard in Winnipeg is covered in snow. Only one homeowner has taken that snow and turned it into Bugs Bunny, Wile E. Coyote, Foghorn Leghorn, Daffy Duck, Sylvester the Cat, the Roadrunner and the devious, toothy beauty that is the Tasmanian Devil, growling at the street, with black buttons iced to his eyeballs in lieu of pupils.
That homeowner is 56-year-old Lendrum (Leigh) Keast, a professional window washer and eave cleaner who lives in a modest house on Aberdeen Avenue, with glass so clean it looks invisible, and with a level of unabashed whimsy on display in his yard that causes dozens of drivers to slam on their brakes daily to make sure they aren’t daydreaming, that the Looney Tunes are right there. Sufferin’ succotash. I say, I say, son, this ain’t no cartoon. This is real life.
"This all started because I was bored. Winter boredom, I call it," Keast says. "I figured out if you wet the snow it becomes a clay, and you can mould it into anything."
In the past, he’s built two-metre-tall dinosaurs. A winged horse. A Harley-Davidson motorcycle, with real bike rims. An airplane. A helicopter. Keast usually starts by having a cigarette in his living room. He takes a quick glance at an image of the subject, and then it’s there, etched in his mind’s eye. He never uses an outline, only his memory, to turn that mental image into a physical reality.
The sculpting started only recently, in 2013. But Keast’s predilection for working with his hands dates back decades, to when he was growing up in Kenora, Ont., being shuffled back and forth to Gladstone every weekend to help his foster parents build the new family farm.
His foster dad, an electronics technician for Bell Canada, could build anything, and a 12-year-old Keast became his sidekick. Together, they built the barn, the garage and the house. He grew up looking at the world with an immense curiosity about how things worked — what made certain structures stand and others fall — and became skilled at devising elegant solutions to complex problems.
"I grew up on that farm, where I had to use my underwear to fix the combine if it broke down in the field," he says, giggling through a toothy smile.
After life on the farm, Keast was dealt blow after blow, fighting addiction and incarceration, all while figuring out exactly who he was and trying to find out how to be the best version of himself. Meeting his birth mother, he says, was a life-changing experience, and as a middle-aged man, he reconnected with her. He started his business, which is now in its 10th year and coming off the busiest one yet.
Eventually, Keast moved in to take care of his mother as she aged. The two lived together on Leila Avenue, and he got a sense of what his mother experienced in life. It was there that the winter boredom first set in, and he went out into the cold to see if he could find a way to enjoy the frozen doldrums.
His first display of public work was, for Keast, revelatory, after he made his snow-clay discovery. He built a large-scale version of Santa Claus, his sleigh pulled by reindeer, with food colouring giving the characters their requisite hues. Some people loved them. Others didn’t know what they were. That’s art, Keast supposes.
Over time, his sculpting improved. The characterizations became clearer, more focused. People stopped asking what they were. They just looked, and pulled out their phones to take pictures. Sometimes they’d stop to watch him work. He didn’t mind. He put up a sign: "Please don’t lick the ice sculpture. You’ll get stuck there."
When his mother died, Keast had to find somewhere new to live. The house on Aberdeen was a good fit. It had big, bright windows, a porch. A little yard.
His work got more recognition on an otherwise quiet street. He built some Looney Tunes. He sculpted Santa. One year, he made a giant Jets logo, but he vows he’ll never do that again: former Jet Patrik Laine was injured shortly after he put it up; Keast thinks he jinxed the season.
Some work was edgier and it was received as such, Keast says with regret. He was once dared to add a phallus to his life-size sculpture of the Grinch, leading to a call to the police by a concerned passerby, and a seat in the back of a squad car, where Keast watched officers inspect the reindeers’ undercarriages for inappropriate appendages.
He was let out with a brief talking-to, and knocked the Grinch over soon after. He built a replica of a police helicopter in its stead. Nobody minded that.
Keast kept sculpting the next winter. And the next winter. And this winter, his output is the finest of folk art, showcasing real ingenuity without any "training," other than years of observation and self-education. With only water, snow, Rubbermaid containers and lined rubber gloves, Keast’s yard is animated to life.
Wile E. Coyote’s cannon? It actually works. Keast built the barrel around a cardboard tube, and built an opening at the top wide enough for an automatic pitching machine. He demonstrates, dropping foam baseballs in one by one.
Bugs Bunny’s town car? It has real tires, with one fused to the rear as a spare. It has real windows that glimmer in the sundog light. Bugs is carved into the driver’s seat.
Foghorn Leghorn? He’s nearly two metres tall, with steel beams supporting his frame beneath kilograms and kilograms of ice.
And Sylvester the Cat? He’s actually climbing a tree on Keast’s boulevard, skidding upward in search of a certain twittering bird. (Skip this next sentence if you want to believe in magic: Keast used wooden dowels as a "skeleton" for Sylvester and screwed them into the tree.)
Keast did all this, mind you, with one working eye and without a hint of artistic background, at least not that one’s needed to make art. "I cannot draw the things I’m making," he says.
He’s been approached by drivers to see if he might trek outside the neighbourhood to adorn their yards, but no, that would be impossible, he tells them. Each sculpture takes frequent maintenance, "glistening" with water, removal of ice drips, and many hours of intermittent working and waiting, incrementally building upwards and shaping the freezing "clay."
Keast is a harsh critic of his own work. He knocked over Taz in January because someone didn’t like it. "Somebody criticized it," he wrote on Facebook. "Not good enough to enjoy. I may knock it all down and never do it again."
But then again, the scene would be incomplete without Taz. So Keast went outside again, and started from scratch to build the beast. Taz is Keast’s favourite, and he jokes, a character a little like him: a big, toothy smile, maybe a little bit misunderstood. The latest iteration, he says, is his best.
Whatever critiques are offered are far offset by glowing reviews, mostly from parents and people of his generation who roll down their windows to chat. But especially wonderful for Keast was a group of children with autism who visited his yard in the past to see his work, and a mother who told him he was her six-year-old daughter’s hero.
"I never wanted to be an artist," Keast says, let alone a hero. "I was only bored."
Friday morning, as cars zip down Aberdeen, most slow down in front of Keast’s house; some stop, some park. One woman gets out of the passenger seat to take a picture. This isn’t a daydream. This isn’t a cartoon. This is real life.
Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.