Ice Sculptures Are Cool Art Form

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Ice sculpture is a pretty cool art form, literally. It is becoming more popular as decorations for weddings, retirement parties and the like. It may be, however, the genre of art that offers the least satisfaction. I can’t imagine creating a masterpiece, only to watch it melt, sometimes in a matter of hours.

All ice sculpture uses ice, of course, as its raw material. The “up” side of this is that it is relatively cheap and the “down” side is that its lifetime is determined by the temperature of the environment where it is sculpted. One can last for minutes or months.

The characteristics of ice will change according to the temperature around it. Think of a snowflake and how it changes during its life. It will fall as snow, may melt into water or may freeze into ice, all by just the slightest change in temperature.

It is best to start with commercial blocks of ice that are frozen from pure, clean water with little to no impurities. These qualities help to make the ice as clear as possible, although transparency is directly related to the freezing process.

Ice that appears cloudy is a result of finely trapped air molecules that tend to bind to impurities while naturally freezing. Mechanically clear ice is usually made as a result of controlling the freezing process by the circulation of water in the freezing chamber. This process will eliminate any trapped air from binding to the impurities during freezing. Certain machines and processes allow slow freezing that produce clear blocks of ice by removing impurities.

Sometimes ice is turned clear after it has been carved by applying heat from propane or a Mapp Gas cylinder. This alters the opaque effect that is obtained during carving. The ice turns clear after the outside is melted. Caution must be used as ice melts quickly, softening the edges and contours. This, in turn, will change the look of the final piece.

Not all carved blocks are clear. For special effects, carvers will sometimes use white ice blocks that look like snow. Colored blocks are obtained by adding dye during the freezing process. The real intricate designs use a combination of clear, white and colored to achieve the desired effect.

The sculptures are usually formed with individual artisans using simple tools such as hand saws and chain saws and razor-sharp chisels. For larger, commercial pieces CNC machines and molding systems are employed.

Ice sculptures can range from very simple to elaborate. Many punch bowls at wedding receptions are ice carved in the shape of swans or hearts. They are used extensively in upper-scale restaurants to enhance the presentation of food such as seafood and sorbets. The dish Peach Melba was created when Chef Auguste Escoffier used an ice swan carving to present his famous dish. Cruise ships, holiday buffets and Sunday brunches, to name a few, all make use of these exquisite designs. Sometimes entire bars are made of ice.

I think the most intriguing use of ice sculptures are ice hotels. Yep, you read this right, does it make you shiver already? These hotels are made of snow and sculpted blocks of ice. They may include restaurants, chapels, saunas and hot tubs. Now really, imagine a sauna in a room made of ice. That’s a little counter-productive!

Beds are made of snow and ice, as are benches and furniture. Walls, fixtures and fittings are made entirely of ice or compacted snow and are held together using a substance known as snice which takes the place of mortar. Temperatures in rooms are below zero and guests use furs, blankets and sleeping bags to keep warm. Guess my electric blanket is out of the question here.

Prices for these rooms range between $300 and $3,000. I am not a wimp but there is no way I am paying that much money for a room I can hardly keep warm in. These hotels usually are functional between November and March. The building material is cheap but the hotels have to be constructed new each year since they melt every spring.

Ice sculpting has become a big event in several areas of the northern climates. Since 1989 Alaska has hosted the annual World Ice Art Championships which are typically held the last week of February and the first week of March. Nearly 100 sculptors from around the world come to sculpt large blocks of pristine natural ice which is referred to as “Arctic Diamonds.” Approximately 45,000 spectators come to the event which is run primarily by volunteers. One of the most popular attractions is the Kid’s Park where kids of all ages can glide down ice slides or spin in ice twirling tops.

The competition is broken down into single block and multi block events and each of these events are further segregated by abstract and realistic carvings. The Single Block Classic has teams of two workers who carve a 3 x 5 x 8-foot block of naturally faced Alaskan ice weighing 7800 pounds.

The Multi-Block Classic has four people to a team and each team receives 10 blocks of ice with each measuring 6 x 4 x 3 feet and weighing 4400 pounds each. Teams in both competitions must handle 55,000 pounds of ice. This may look like fun, but it is certainly no easy task. Competitors require strength, endurance and engineering skills as well as a mastery of the basic ice sculpture techniques and artistic design.

The very neat thing about art is that it comes in all forms. Everyone in every walk of life can find something that appeals to him or her. Ice sculpting is not on my list of things I would like to try. However, I have the utmost respect for anyone who has mastered this craft and certainly admire the exquisite designs whenever I see them.