Cool Art…Literally

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Amidst the gray skies and gloom that winter days sometimes bring, there is always a bright spot in Shipshewana, IN in late December. Ice chips fly as carvers from all over come to create masterpieces out of frozen water.

This year’s contest, due to weather conditions, was held on December 28 and 29. This time is always a highlight in this quaint rural Hoosier town where visitors come from all over to shop specialty stores that feature handmade items and Amish country cooking. The town also does Christmas right with their holiday lighting all over the small community. Viewing the ice sculptures at night under the lights is even more festive.

Actually, ice sculpting is pretty common in various locations around the country where temperatures permit. The granddaddy of all the ice contests is held in Alaska…go figure! Since 1989, Alaska has hosted the World Ice Art Championship where nearly 100 sculptors come from all over the world to sculpt large blocks of pristine natural ice during the last week of February and the first week of March. The event draws an average of 45,000 spectators and the creations are sometimes referred to as “Arctic Diamonds.”

There are two categories: the single block and multi block and two sub-categories of realistic and abstract. In single block, teams of up to two people work on 3 x 5 x 8-foot blocks of ice weighing around 7800 pounds each. In multi, there can be up to four people on a team and each team gets ten blocks of ice measuring 6 x 4 x 3 feet and weighing 4400 pounds each. Power tools and scaffolding may be used when sculpting. These masterpieces require not only artistic vision, but also knowledge of ice sculpting techniques, strength, endurance and engineering skills. There is even a kids’ section that has ice sleds and ice twirly tops.

This art form takes my breath away. I know from doing my painting, photography and writing that creativity sometimes has its own time frame. However, with ice sculpting, time is of the essence because of the volatility of the ice. Besides that, I would be at a loss as to where to start. Just how do you know how to begin an ice sculpture?

This art is traditionally taught in culinary schools and other small schools that teach ice carving. Initially, sculptors would carve ice blocks “cold turkey” by using chain saws, grinders and chisels. Through the years, the designs have become more intricate and many carvers today use templates and are aided by CNC machines and molding systems.

Besides ice sculpting competitions, more people are probably familiar with smaller versions that are used to enhance the presentation of foods, traditionally seafoods and sorbets. Cruise ships and larger hotel buffets make use of carved ice as do many wedding receptions. Hearts, doves and swans are popular subjects for these smaller sculptures. Swans are supposed to represent monogamy which is why they are popular for wedding carvings. Chef Augustine Escoffier used an ice swan to present the creation of the dish Peach Melba.

Sometimes entire bars are made of ice as are ice houses and ice walls. When making these larger structures, special measures have to be taken so they do not melt so fast. One method is by placing and keeping vertical rods in the ice sculpture along with a type of ice pellets. These pellets are made by combining one part water, three parts ice cubes or crushed ice and one part tiny floating dry ice pellets and churning all of these in a cement mixer. The ice pellets super cools the ice water so that the water acts as a glue to cement or freeze the crushed ice together. Within seconds, after the mixture has stopped moving, it will become solid ice, to be carved into a wall, bar or other structure.

Although some carvers use natural ice blocks from rivers or ponds, many prefer clear ice that has been made mechanically by controlling the freezing process and the circulation of the water in the freezing chamber. Certain machines and processes allow for slow freezing which results in clean ice.

Characteristics of ice change according to its temperature and the surrounding air temperature. Most sculptors want that pure transparency that only comes from ice that has been made from pure and clean water that is free from impurities. If ice is clouded it is because it has finely trapped air molecules that have binded to impurities during the freezing process. In more intricate ice patterns, some sculptors actually want the clouded ice, a combination of cloudy and clear or blocks of ice colored by dyes to achieve the final art form.

There is nothing like watching a sculptor start chipping a form out of a block of ice once he has drawn the pattern on it. It takes multiple cuts to make curves and after a design has been carved, many use a flamer to smooth imperfections and give it a finished look. How amazing to see a 3-D effect of an image come to life from a simple block of ice!

How long these sculptures last depend solely on the temperature. If it is below freezing or if in a controlled environment, they can last for days. However, the life for many is but a few hours. Unlike other art forms, part of the beauty of ice sculptures is that something so perishable is sculpted into a work of art only to be viewed once. Perhaps this is what makes us appreciate this art form.

Photos Courtesy of Getty Images