Ice Sculptor

Ice Sculptor

Dr. Ice

22 Years Experience

New Orleans, LA

Male, 51

For more than 2 decades, I've been an ice sculptor, mostly for events in and around New Orleans. This means that if it can be made of ice and it's fun, I've probably made it for some crazy all-out party. I am a gold medal ice carver and my teammates and I also have a Guinness World Record for the world's longest ice bar. In 2004, I was ohh, so close to winning a world championship in Alaska. Alas, we came in second...maybe next time. But want to know something about ice sculptures? Ask me!

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Last Answer on July 19, 2020

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If the temp outside is below freezing, will an ice sculpture remain EXACTLY the same? For example, if you come back on day 2 of a multiday competition, do you have to first check to see whether there was any change to the sculpture overnight?

Asked by Oscar almost 8 years ago

In the scenario that you're describing, it's unlikely that there was a change in the sculpture, unless it snowed or somebody broke it (that has happened, although not to me). But over a longer period, even if it stays below freezing, the ice can change, mainly in two different ways. The first is sublimation, where the solid ice doesn't melt but goes straight to vapor. This happens more if it's very dry or there's a lot of air movement (which is why you have to wrap sculptures in a walk-in freezer). Or, if the sculpture is exposed to direct sun, and it's below freezing, but not too far below, the sunlight will start causing small fractures inside the ice. As the exposure to the sun continues, more and more fractures show up, they'll start to join, and the ice will get "gray" and much more fragile. Eventually, it might even turn white and be extremely fragile. So protection from sunlight is important for longer competitions, except when it's extremely cold. Oh, I almost forgot. There is one other thing that could happen, but that happens only when certain circumstances are met. Oddly enough, ice will bend. This is called "ice creep" and has actually been used in the construction of a building from ice; they needed the ice to bend so that it would curve into the right shape for the building structure. My main ice creep experience was in 2009 when we made the "beautiful chemistry" sculpture that I mention in another answer. The top of the sculpture stretched out unsupported for quite a ways and and as it turned out, one part of the sculpture started to bend, apparently as soon as we finished working on it. In a 24 hour period, the tip moved about 20 inches. I was curious about whether it would keep going, but I had to leave Alaska not long after and apparently the sculpture collapsed the next day when somebody touched it while taking a photo. So I never found out how much further it would go. But extreme ice bending doesn't happen very often, although it is an issue at times. So I suppose the correct answer to your question is: the sculpture would not remain EXACTLY the same. But except in unusual circumstances, you probably wouldn't notice the difference.

Is it safe to drink from ice luges? It's just frozen water, right? But how about the tools used to carve them, are they sanitary?

Asked by Chrissy over 7 years ago

Chrissy, thanks for your question! I have to confess that I put off answering for a couple days because this is one that I wanted to think about, as it's an important issue. And fortunately, it's one that I'm reasonably qualified to answer, given my background. The straightforward answer to your first question is yes, for the vast majority of ice luges professionally carved in the U.S., it's safe to drink from them. In more than 20 years of sculpting ice, I have never even heard of anybody getting sick because of an ice sculpture or ice luge. In fact, I frequently volunteer to "test" ice luges that I set up, just to make sure that everything's working right. And I HATE getting sick, so I doubt I'd be so quick to test them if I had any concerns. To answer to the second part of your question, things get a bit more complicated. I would say that, for the most part, the tools used to carve sculptures are pretty sanitary. I know that's not exactly a ringing endorsement, but let me explain why, most of the time, it doesn't really matter. First, many (most in my case) of the ice luges made by professional carvers are tube luges. With a tube luge, the drink travels through a vinyl tube and it never comes in contact with the ice. The tubing is intended for use with drinking water, so as long as it's clean, the tubing is safe. (The other kind of luge is a channel luge: a channel is cut directly into the ice for the drink to flow down.) Second, when an ice luge is set up and being used, it's almost always melting. That means its surface is constantly changing. After a very short period out on display, the ice luge has a brand new surface, one that the tools used to carve it never actually touched. So as long as the ice itself is safe, the ice luge is. Finally, most of the drinks that flow down an ice luge have a high alcohol content, so that also helps keep things microbe free. Another thing to keep in mind is that most ice carvers come from a culinary background and have training in food safety. They're aware of potential problems and they take steps to address them. I myself am somewhat of an anomaly in the ice carving world: I have no culinary training. However, I have degrees in biology and chemistry and when I finished college I worked for a while in a clinical microbiology lab. So I have a better than average understanding of the potential hazards. To cover all the bases, you probably noticed that I stopped short of saying that ALL ice luges are safe to drink from. It is possible for someone to get sick from one, although I've never heard of it. But here's how it could happen. 1) The ice itself is contaminated. Freezing doesn't kill most microbes, it just slows them way down. If the water used to make the ice is bad, then the ice luge will be bad. But if the ice is coming from a reputable source, it's very unlikely to be contaminated. 2) The shot takers are putting their mouths directly on a channel ice luge to take a shot. I still think it would be tough to get sick this way, as the ice is somewhat self-cleaning while melting, but I'd hesitate to take a shot from a luge right after somebody who I thought might be sick. Of course, just hanging out in the vicinity of somebody who's sick is probably just as big a risk factor. 3) The drink is contaminated. If whatever drink poured down the luge is contaminated, then in a way, you're getting sick from the ice luge. But as I said before, the generally high alcohol content of luged drinks makes this also unlikely. I hope this addresses your concerns. I think that if you're taking shots from an ice luge, as long as it comes from a reasonable reputable source, you have little or nothing to worry about. Unless of course, you take too many shots from the luge! And that's a whole other topic and I think a much larger concern. So, happy luging and thanks for the question!

Assuming you work with chainsaws and other heavy machinery, just how DANGEROUS is ice sculpting? Ever sustain any notable injuries?

Asked by Skywalk33 almost 8 years ago

First off, the only bone I've ever broken was from carving ice. But it was a little bone, my big toe. We were taking down a particularly heavy sculpture and it slipped, landing on my foot. Unfortunately, there's not much that can be done when you break your big toe except to take pain medicine. I still had more work to do that day, so it was a long, painful one. I was only sure that I'd broken it a few weeks later when I got an X-ray to make sure it was healing okay. Aside from that, I've been rather lucky I think. I have had other injuries, mainly lots of small cuts from the sharp tools and minor back injuries from the lifting and moving that's required. I've also had to go to physical therapy when I was having a lot of pain in my hands and wrists from using the tools. Others that I know have not been as lucky. Off the top of my head, I can think of three carvers that I know that have cut themselves with chainsaws. Nothing was cut off and everything turned out okay, but one cut himself on the neck. That might have turned out very badly. Many other carvers that I know have cut themselves with the sharp bits we use on die grinders. These tools spin at 25,000 rpm and can be very dangerous. I know at least a few that have gone to the hospital and required stitches or surgery for their injures. I was at a competition in Florida where a carver got a spinning tool stuck in his glove and couldn't get away from it. Another carver hurt himself with a die grinder during a competition in Las Vegas. I've had several close calls with die grinders, but so far the worst I've gotten was when my die grinder was fortunately turned off and not spinning. The stakes get a lot higher when we're working on larger sculptures like in Alaska. The weight of the ice there is measured in tons and major injuries are always one small mistake away. I think the general lack of serious injuries at the Ice Art Championships can be largely credited to the skills of the heavy machinery operators; they're REALLY good at lifting, moving, and stacking the massive ice blocks and the sculptures that the carvers create from them. One incident in Alaska was somewhat ironic and I mention it only because it ended up okay. A talented carver I know was working on what turned out to be one of the tallest pieces I've ever seen in Alaska. I think he was working close to the ground though, which was good. He was sculpting a hammerhead shark, and part of it fell, hitting him, of course, in the head. As I recall, he was able to continue carving later, which is fortunate when you consider how much ice we're talking about. Also in Alaska, I faced probably my closest brush with serious injury. We were working on a very large sculpture that required a lot of pieces to be assembled. Two of the carvers on my team were cutting a slab of ice free from a larger block. It was to be used as the wing of a very big eagle. I was nearby, splitting another large block in half with a big chainsaw. I was standing on an upside-down bucket and something else because the block I was cutting was very tall. While I was working, I caught some movement out of the corner of my eye, and somebody probably yelled as well. The slab the other carvers were cutting was falling now that it had been cut free. And despite the extra height of what I was standing on, my right leg was in the falling slab's path. Somehow, I managed to awkwardly jump out of the way and I landed on top of the fallen slab which weighed somewhere between 600 and 1000 lbs. The bucket under my right foot wasn't as lucky; it looked like an accordion when we got the now broken slab off of it. In retrospect, there were several things that we could have done to prevent that situation and it was definitely a learning experience. Unfortunately, I think major injuries in this sort of environment are inevitable, despite the impressive lack of serious injuries so far. There are just too many things that can go wrong. But I'll keep hoping that it goes along like it's been going because there's no doubt that it's dangerous.

Nice BBC shout-out Dawson:) So if my experience shaping ice is limited to making frozen popsicles, how many hours of coaching would it take until I could make something impressive? And what's a common entry-level ice sculpture that beginners learn?

Asked by DavidLevinsky over 7 years ago

Thanks for your question David! Yes, the mention on the BBC blog was a welcome surprise. (http://www.bbc.com/travel/blog/20130116-the-origins-of-ice-sculpting) To answer your first question: not long, if you pay attention. I'd say that a novice carver could make something "impressive" out of ice almost immediately with guidance from an experienced carver. That's because ice is, in at least a couple of ways, a forgiving medium, despite its reputation. First, it's visually forgiving because presented properly, an ice sculpture is quite dazzling, especially to a first-time observer. Often, I think that people are visually overwhelmed by a brightly lit sculpture and that they're quite blind to even significant mistakes. If a novice carver gets a sculpture's silhouette mostly right (Its silhouette is the most important aspect of an ice sculpture.), then there's a very good chance that it will be considered quite impressive. Second, ice is temporally forgiving, in most situations. The easiest way to explain this is to say that most of your mistakes will melt away, usually pretty quickly. As long as a sculpture is structurally sound, it has a chance to take on a different sort of abstract beauty as temperature and meltwater carve away at the ice. Many people think that ice sculptures look more beautiful the longer they're out on display. I'm usually partial to a sculpture's earlier looks, but I can understand the viewpoint. (This whole explanation assumes that it's warm enough so that the sculpture is melting.) You could also argue that the ice itself gets a pass. I've seen some pretty awful ice sculptures (from my "jaded" point of view) get high praise simply because they're made of ice. In fact, "Is that ice?!" is one of the most frequent questions I hear once a sculpture is in place. And although I might act on the surface as though this is a silly question, I'll confess that I secretly enjoy that one in particular. For your second question, I'll offer a few examples of typical early ice sculptures, as well as some tough ones. Swans, vases, and fish are all good early sculptures, although a swan's delicate neck can be a little challenging. Some novice carvers also try letters early on; my first sculpture was "DAD" for Father's Day. On the other end of the scale, for me at least, are people and horses. People are the toughest, I think, mainly because our brains are very sensitive to slight variations in pose and expression. So if your carving is a little off in some way, it won't create the impression that you're looking for. Thanks again for your questions!

Is there concern that global warming is going to make sculptures melt faster during competitions, or that you won't be able to harvest huge blocks of ice from lakes if they're not frozen?

Asked by joecarter over 7 years ago

First off Joe, let me apologize that it took me a little bit to answer your question. As I write this, New Orleans is readying itself for Super Bowl XLVII between the 49ers and the Ravens. Because of that, we have a few more ice sculptures on our schedule than usual and consequently, I have a lot less time for things that don't directly involve a chainsaw. Again, my apologies.

As an ice sculptor, one of the first things you get used to is that your sculptures are going to disappear, sometimes very quickly. So I'm rarely concerned at how fast my finished sculptures melt except when I'm trying to get a photo before certain details disappear or change. In fact, to me, the way that ice sculptures change is one of the most fascinating things about them.

From an ice sculpting event organizer point of view, however, overly warm temperatures can be bad, because that limits the window that people can come out and enjoy the ice sculptures. That said, I've been a part of ice sculpture competitions held in nearly 100?F temperatures. In those cases, the main attraction is the creation of the sculptures, which necessarily happens VERY fast. Sculptors have a variety of techniques to adapt to warmer temperatures and the use of these techniques can make sculpting even more interesting to watch, especially for those with short attention spans.

Are huge blocks of ice at risk of becoming an endangered species in the face of global warming? Considering the long list of potentially devastating changes that significant climactic shifts would entail, I'd say that the ice needs of ice sculptors merit little concern. Besides, it's very possible to make huge blocks of ice artificially and this is done routinely in Canada and Belgium using oversized block machines. And if big blocks aren't available, it's easy enough to freeze smaller blocks together. Rather, ice sculptors are uniquely positioned to help environmental advocates spread their message. In recent years, ice carvers have been a part of a number of political and environmental demonstrations that warn against the hazards of our future.

Are you also a natural at sculpting other materials (wood, stone, etc)? Do you ever do that, or is it ice only?

Asked by brrrrrrr.... over 7 years ago

As I explained to another questioner, I'm slow to answer because as I write, we're getting ready for the Super Bowl in New Orleans, so my outside-the-freezer activities are a bit limited right now. Sorry about that! I don't think that I'm a "natural" at sculpting ice, so I'd hardly think that I'd be a natural at any other sort of sculpting. I do, however, have a passion for sculpting ice and that's meant that I've been genuinely interested in everything I can find out about it. Because of that, and because of a lot of practice, I've developed a certain skill level that's probably higher than the average. And given my decades of experience with sculpting ice, I do have certain advantages if I decide to tackle other media. However, I have disadvantages too. Keep in mind that I'm used to being able to look right through what I'm sculpting, which makes certain parts of sculpting a lot easier. Can't do that with stone or wood; unless you have X-ray specs! I do have friends and family who wonder why I haven't switched to mediums more permanent than ice. Perhaps I have a fear of commitment? Ice has the distinct advantage that every mistake you make will go away on its own. I suppose though that I've taken baby steps towards working with more durable media. When I first got to New Orleans, I worked for a little while on Mardi Gras floats and more recently, I've tried sculpting pumpkins, following the lead of pumpkin master sculptor Ray Villafane. (Here's an example of my best pumpkin sculpting so far: https://icedragonice.com/gallery/halloween-ice-sculptures/) As enjoyable as foam carving and pumpkin sculpting are, however, I think that I'll likely stay with ice for the foreseeable future. And when I really want to keep something I've made from melting away, I'll freeze it in time with my camera. Good question; thanks!

Are there a lot of women in competitive ice sculpting? All the Youtube videos I see are men, which is strange since I'd think it's an artistic activity that women would gravitate toward. Does wielding the heavy chainsaw present an obstacle for them?

Asked by brownian_ocean over 7 years ago

There are not a lot of women in competitive ice sculpting or in ice sculpting in general, which I think is unfortunate because it robs the art of a valuable perspective. But there are some women ice sculptors and some of them are very, very good, with world championships to show for it. Heather Brice is the first to come to mind; she's married to another ice sculptor, Steve Brice. Together and apart, they have both won world championships multiple times. They've also created the closest thing the U.S. has to an ice hotel, the Aurora Ice Museum near Fairbanks, Alaska. Tajana Raukar is another example. She's also won multiple world championships and currently works as an ice sculptor in MIchigan.

When we set a record for building the world's longest ice bar in 2011, Dominique Collel was part of our team. She sculpts ice in Califormia and focuses on performance ice sculpting. She worked at least as hard, if not harder, than anybody else on the team and was crucial to our project. She obliterated any lingering doubts that I'd had that women can't handle the physical aspects of sculpting ice.

That said, I think the physical aspects do discourage female participation. The standard ice blocks are pretty heavy and injuries related to the heavy blocks are fairly common. But technique and mechanical assistance can get around that, so I don't think that's all of it. The tools are probably part of it as well; even a little chainsaw can get very heavy after a long day of carving.

I'd like to see more women in ice sculpting, competitive and otherwise, because, like I said, it would add to the art. And I don't think the obstacles are insurmountable, just probably annoying.

Good question and I'm sorry I was slow to answer. You asked your question on Friday and well, that's when most ice sculptors get really busy, mainly for Friday night and Saturday events. Sometimes there are Sunday events too, but Mondays are usually much slower. Thanks!