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Medium Cold

Competitive ice-carving: "It's not only artistic, it has many of the elements of sport as well, it's physically demanding, and style and performance count for a lot."


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How do you get to the ice-carving competition? I asked. This was at the recent Restaurant Hotel-Motel Show in McCormick Place. "It's simple," an usher told me. "Just follow the blinking red arrows and when you hear the sound of chain saws, you'll know you're there."

I found it, finally, in a small roped-off area in the basement, where teams from the U.S., Mexico, Canada, and Singapore were working intensely on four huge blocks of ice. I arrived in the midst of the individual freestyle competition, in which one carver and a helper had two hours to sculpt an original design. Among the small crowd that had gathered to watch was Chuck Wagner, president and charter member of the National Ice Carving Association (NICA), an organization formed last year to promote the art of ice sculpture through education, exhibitions, and the standardization of judging. Interest in the field has been fueled in the last few years by competitions at the Saint Paul Winter Carnival, the Plymouth Ice Spectacular, and the 1988 Winter Olympics.

"Chicago is a hotbed of ice-carving activity," said Wagner, who, not coincidentally, is also president of a company that sells ice. "We have a certified school just outside the city, and membership in the association is open to anyone with an interest." The association even has a code of ethics, which acknowledges the member's accountability to society as a whole as well as to the association, which means, I guess, that hardened criminals need not apply.

The connection between ice carving and restaurants isn't so obscure when you realize that virtually all the practitioners are or have been executive chefs who first started creating these crystalline images for their elaborate buffets. "As chefs became more and more creative over the years," said Wagner, "people began to view their displays as an art form. And that's the great thing about it, it's not only artistic, but it has many of the elements of sport as well, it's physically demanding, and style and performance count for a lot."

Wayne Dunham, another representative, agreed. You wouldn't believe some of the things these guys make. I've seen Statues of Liberty, sculptures of Christ being crucified, I've even seen the entire Chicago Symphony Orchestra with Sir Georg Solti conducting. They have these great tricks that they do, like using water or slush as a kind of glue to attach separate parts of the sculpture together."

Some of the thousands of pounds of ice ordered for this show met with disaster. Dunham explained, "Actually, we had a minor catastrophe this morning. There were 85 blocks of ice being brought over in a truck, but somewhere along the way 75 of them fell over and cracked. But the most highly prized ice, the most pure, comes from glaciers in the Bering Strait, near Alaska. But since those glaciers are being preserved as a natural resource, blocks of ice just can't be cut from them. So, there's a company that sends men out into the waters to wait in a boat and then catch and haul away huge chunks that have broken off and are floating in the water. Another company decided to make ice cubes from that glacier ice this year, the idea being that people will pay a lot of money for these super-rich ice cubes. The rich will have them at their froufrou parties. But I wouldn't use them because that ice is millions of years old and a lot of dinosaurs died back then. And I'm sorry, I'm just not going to be using dinosaur-virus ice cubes."

A strange idea to ponder, but no stranger than watching grown men in knee pads and heavy gloves attacking 400-pound blocks of ice with electric chain saws. Watching his countrymen struggle with the equipment, Derovin Michel Ange, captain of the Mexican team, was alternately smiling and frowning. "We're not used to American time. All this speed. Hurry up, hurry up. In Mexico we do things slowly." He pointed to his teammate. "Can you imagine, he's never used electric equipment to do one before. Only chisels." He walked over to the man and started pointing vigorously at the lower portion of the sculpture and shaking his head at something he didn't like. Standing almost five feet tall was a detailed carving of an Aztec head. The reflection of the lights through the ice gave it a ghostly quality. "We wanted to do something different," he added, "something you don't ordinarily see." When I asked him if he remembered his own first attempt at sculpting ice, he laughed. "It was supposed to be a fish. It was a mess."

Fish and birds are two of the more popular subjects for ice sculpting. The Canadian team was working on two goldfish with their tails in the air The team from Singapore spent their time on two wild eagles. "American eagles," noted Richard Chua Say Eng. "In Singapore you have to have a degree in the arts to work on ice carving for hotel buffets. Carvings are as typical there as flower arrangements are in American hotels. Also, in Singapore each luxury hotel has a staff of two or three artists to do ice, butter, and styrofoam carvings. We do most of our work with small hand chisels, though the trend now is toward electric equipment because it's so much faster."

In the farthest comer of the hall, Mark Daukas, an American, was moving in sharp, precise circles around his piece. He was using grinding tools to delineate the anatomy of a centaur standing on a rocky cliff. A crowd had gathered, watching appreciatively as he placed a drawing over a square of ice and then used the template to cut out a perfect bow and arrow.

Daukas, at 30, is considered to be the best American ice sculptor, having won every competition he's entered in the U.S. "I went to school to be a chef, but I couldn't see spending my days behind a hot oven. I was always good at art in high school and liked to study anatomy, and I thought anything had to be better than cooking, so I tried this." Daukas especially likes to sculpt horses and the human figure and sells many of his sculptures to big hotels like the Ritz, the Four Seasons, and the Beverly Hills and even to movie studios. Unlike the team from Singapore, he's largely self-taught, a fact he quickly lets be known. "American superiority is just around the corner," he said. "They have the tradition, but we have more flexibility and originality." Then, he added, with enough panache to make Iacocca proud, "We expect to do some definite damage at the next competition in Japan."

As everyone expected, Daukas's centaur won the day's competition. Ten minutes after the piece was judged it was dumped unceremoniously into an industrial-size garbage can. Christine Tinsley, the woman who had been Daukas's helper, said, "You notice he wasn't around when they hauled it off. It's part of the antagonism of the art. The sculpture disappearing even as you're shaping it." I walked over and looked at the centaur quietly melting. Down in the corner one of the hands had broken off. I could still make out the fine details of the fingers. In less than an hour it would be just a puddle.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Ellen Dallager.

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