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In the Arts District: Snowball in Vegas.
In the Arts District: Snowball in Vegas.

Giant Cat Head: Snowball in Vegas

Field review by the editors.

Las Vegas, Nevada

Las Vegas artist Jesse Carson Smigel concedes that cats often crop up in his work. "I try to do different things, but a remarkably large percentage of my art is about cats," he told us, including a short-lived 26-foot-long digital mural of cats battling Borg cubes in outer space. "I think people have pretty much picked up on the idea that, yeah, I'm a cat guy."

Snowball was designed to encourage visitor interaction.
Snowball was designed to encourage visitor interaction.

Felines, however, were the furthest thing from Jesse's mind when he proposed a sculpture for the city's fledgling First Street Art Trail. It would be, he said, a nine-foot-tall obese tardigrade -- a usually microscopic "space bear" frequently featured in sci-fi -- tipping a top hat in greeting with one of its eight tiny arms. The idea did not go over well. "I don't think anybody liked that concept, aesthetically or philosophically," he said.

The sculpture's parabolic ears required a great deal of hands-on work.
The sculpture's parabolic ears required a great deal of hands-on work.

So, instead, Jesse built a giant cat head. And the city loved it.

The finished sculpture, ten feet high, was unveiled on October 14, 2014. Jesse titled it Snowball in Vegas, named after the first family cat that he remembered as a child. A snowball in sizzling Las Vegas is a rare and valuable thing, and Jesse said that it suggested the "snowball's chance" awaiting most gamblers. Snowball the cat was white, but Jesse the visual artist had to alter the color for the sculpture. "I made it an orangish tabby hue," he said. "With our blue skies, it was the appropriate color contrast."

Press your face here.
Press your face here.

Snowball was instantly popular. It snagged Jesse a "Best Public Artist" in Las Vegas award, as well as a signed letter of commendation from Nevada Senator Harry Reid.

We asked Jesse if the cat's oversized curvilinear ears were a tribute to the swooping roofline of the 1950s La Concha Motel, now preserved at the Neon Museum a few blocks away. "I don't think I'm that smart," Jesse said. "When you make a cat head big, you just make the ears big."

Snowball in Vegas was always conceived as a photo op, although Jesse also designed it as an interactive piece of public art. "Its tongue is right there at human level," he said. "I envisioned that people would push their face or shoulder against the tongue, and pose like being pulled upward from the licking of the tongue, with a grossed-out face or something, so it looks like they're being groomed by this cat." He even suggested this activity on the tag hanging from the cat's collar, and gave the cat a blissful expression. "It just looks so gosh-darned content."

What Jesse discovered, however, was that only ten percent of Snowball's visitors participated as planned. Instead, "People will take a front-on photo with it, then stick out their tongues," he said. "They're emulating the cat, not engaging with it. That's not the practical experience that I'd designed, but seeing how people behave is part of the fun."

Spray treatment applied outdoors.
Jesse Smigel adjusts the protective coloration of his massive cat head.

Some people, however, misbehaved with Snowball, triggering a rescue mission for the sculpture, which was brought back to Jesse's studio for repairs and refurbishment. Snowball was given an improved coat of anti-graffiti paint, as well as a protective skin-shell of what Jesse described as "several hundred pounds of pickup truck bed liner." This shields Snowball from the skateboarders who have climbed atop the head and launched themselves off the end of its pink nose.

When the sculpture returned to its familiar street corner on November 7, 2019, Las Vegas proclaimed it, "Cat Appreciation Day" -- even though Snowball's fans continue to rarely act in the way they're expected to. Just like cats.

Giant Cat Head: Snowball in Vegas

1002 S. 1st St., Las Vegas, NV
Four blocks west of S. Las Vegas Blvd, at the southwest edge of downtown. Snowball faces east, on the southwest corner of Coolidge Ave. and S. 1st St.
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
Save to My Sights

Nearby Offbeat Places

Gambler's General StoreGambler's General Store, Las Vegas, NV - < 1 mi.
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In the region:
The Surviving Mother: A Sad Mom-ument, Las Vegas, NV - 3 mi.

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