Ice slicing

“Matador Dance,” 2005 Single Block Classic, 3rd Place – Realistic. Artists: Ted Wakar and Martin Falk, both of the United States.

To you it’s stuff to slide on, a dangerous winter creation that makes life just a little bit harder. But to some people, ice is for art.

You’ve seen their work at wedding receptions and posh parties – giant salmon leaping out of salad bars, huge swans swimming through a sea of shrimp, regal palaces with towers and ramparts surrounded by a moat of parsley butter – all crystal clear, all sculpted from a block of ice, possibly with the aid of a chain saw or a laser gun.

As you look out your windshield at endless vistas of snow and ice this winter, remember there are places you can go to see these artists at work. Competitions are held across the continent, in most cases as part of local winter festivals. And the results often aren’t just carving table decorations – they’re dramatically big and beautiful.

“Almost all of [the competitions] are free and open to the public,” says Alice Connelly, executive director of the National Ice Carving Association. And at some shows, she says, you can step forward and take a shot at sculpting.

If you do go to a show, remember that the art you’re seeing likely will never be seen again. The beautiful creations of ice artists are fleeting and, like a Christmas snowman, soon melt away.

Turning a block of ice into something of beauty is not a tame activity. “There are shows where carvers get 15 minutes with a chain saw to finish their creations,” says Connelly. “They’re also allowed to use one more tool, but with that little time and that much ice they usually rely pretty much on the chain saw.”

Most artists came to ice carving via life as a chef. According to Connelly, perhaps a third of the NICA artists are full-time ice sculptors, most of them working in the food and catering industries. Others, for the most part, work as chefs and sculpt as part of their presentations, enjoying a break from the kitchen to compete in tournaments.

“There are a few professional sculptors from other media who have come to work in ice,” Connelly says. “One of our best members works in all sorts of media – bronze, marble and so on, but it takes him a year to create something and another three years to sell it, so while he does that, he makes his living carving ice.”

Ice sculptors like their raw material as crystal clear as it can be. That usually means it’s filtered pure water kept circulating until fully frozen. But Mother Nature also provides ice of all qualities, and a lot of competition ice comes from “ice mines,” better known in summer as lakes or rivers. Imperfect or low-grade ice can be cloudy or dirty, and it can break or crack more easily as the sculptor works.

Internationally, a handful of giant shows exhibit massive ice sculptures, the most prominent in Harbin, China; Sapporo, Japan, and another in Minenohara, Norway. In North America the show in Quebec City, Canada, at the end of January is the biggest of them all. “A truly major event, it’s really something to see,” says Connelly.

Russia, Scandinavia and other European countries all stage big winter festivals with ice sculpting competitions. American ice sculptors regularly compete successfully in these foreign festivals, continuing to polish our international reputation. NICA members, says Connelly, are some of the best ice artists in the world.

“The show at Frankenmuth in Michigan and the one in Ottawa [Ontario] are two really big shows,” says Connelly. “They have it all – fireworks, vendors, music, snow events, food courts, all sorts of entertainment.”

But the many competitions in small towns across the United States are also attractive to people because they have a family atmosphere and usually all the charm of small-town America in winter, she says.

This winter, if you’ll be traveling the Northern states or across the border into Canada, research ahead of time (by an Internet search on Google or by consulting NICA’s website, www.nica.org, and make plans to visit an ice sculpting contest or winter festival.

Here are a few of the most popular events:

Fairbanks, Alaska, is probably too far out of the way for most of you to find loads to and from, but Feb. 27 to March 1 it is home to the World Ice Art Championships (www.icealaska.com). With this trip you could also visit the Ice Museum, home to some of the best ice art ever created, 60 miles away (just down the road by Alaska standards) at Chena Hot Springs, where some great ice art is kept cold enough to survive long term.

On Jan. 6 amateur ice sculptors descend on Logan, Ohio. Jan. 18-20 the pros go to work in Fort St. John, British Columbia, Canada, working over a 24-hour period on 12 blocks of ice. On Jan. 19 the Titanic Museum in Branson, Mo., hosts the great ironic ice sculpting event, where competition is tough, so simply creating a model of the iceberg that sank the legendary ocean liner will probably not win anything.

Jan. 24 and 25 is the giant Great Lakes Professional Ice Carving Championship in Frankenmuth, Mich., a pro event with some of the great chain saw carvers flying into action. Frankemuth, which bills itself as “Michigan’s Little Bavaria,” was founded by German settlers seeking to create religious colonies in America, and their southern German heritage is found in the architecture of the town and such things as restaurant menus. The carving event is actually part of a larger winter festival which lasts from Jan. 23-28. At the same time the National Collegiate Ice Carving Championships also take place in town.

That same week in January, there’s the Ice Magic International Ice Sculpture event at Lake Louise in Alberta; the Stowe Winter Carnival in Stowe, Vt.; and the Fire and Ice Winter Festival in Mouth Holly, N.J.

Feb. 1-3 the Crystal Garden International Ice Carving Competition in Ottawa, Ontario, is part of a huge three-weekend celebration (Feb. 1-17).

In you can get to Hamilton in southwest Ohio Feb. 1-2, you’ll be in a place that bills itself as “The City of Sculpture,” and in addition to lots of the traditional sorts of sculpture, the city holds Icefest every other year. The show always has a theme, and this year it’s animals (two years ago it was an undersea them). At night the town lights up some of the sculptures to create a real winter wonderland built around 44-inch by 20-inch by 10-inch blocks of ice weighing 350 pounds. You can check out Hamilton’s Icefest at www.cityofsculpture.org/icefest.

America’s National Ice Carving Championship in Downers Grove, Ill., Feb. 9 -10, is the Kentucky Derby, the Final Four and the Super Bowl of ice sculpting, and afterward there are still more stops on the competitive ice-sculpting tour. St. Joseph, Mich., holds it Magical Ice Carving Festival Feb. 16-18; there’s the Crystal Classic in Green River, Wyo., Feb. 15-17, and then Zermatt’s Masters Tournament in Midway, Utah, Feb. 22-23. West Point, N.Y., stages its Hot Ice competition Feb. 23 -24.

To get contact information for each of these events, go to NICA’s website.

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