World Assets Frozen: Ice Art Championships bring carvers from around the world

Jeffrey Bushke/Sun Star Contributor
March 27, 2012

At the 2012 BP World Ice Art Championships, a globe sits between tentacles in an abstract ice carving on the evening of Sunday, March 18. Erin McGroarty/ Sun Star

The Daily Beast named Fairbanks, Alaska as number one on its list of America’s Coldest Cities. Despite this ominous title, artists from at least five continents descend on Fairbanks during the months of February and March for the BP World Ice Art Championships.  They bring with them an assortment of hats, gloves, boots, parkas and a collection of ice carving tools.

With what is described as the “world’s best ice” this Interior Alaska city is a warm host to a really cool competition.  The best ice carvers from around the globe come to compete, share their love of ice carving, and dazzle the thousands of visitors that flock to witness the amazing art.

Dedication possesses these artists to travel great distances to create sculptures that rival what the rest of the world consider masters.  Michelangelo, Praxilies, and Auguste Rodin are well known for their works that are considered timeless.  In contrast, the sculptors who create masterpieces in Fairbanks know the sun’s warming rays will claim their work, drip by drip and drop by drop, in a few short weeks.  Many of these dedicated artists return to compete year after year.

“That’s the magic of it, artists coming from around the globe for one purpose, to create art.  There is no religion, no politics and no race.  Just artisans,” said Dick Brickley, chairman of Ice Alaska.

“The artists come for the crystal-clear aqua-blue ice.  The artists pay their own way and work 18 hours a day just to make their own creation, the love of creating.  They can do ice carvings in hours what it would take days and weeks to create in other media,” Brickley said.

A first timer in the BP World Ice Art Championships is Li Yan Liu, manager of the Overseas Chinese Ice Sculpture Art Decoration Company.  Although she is not an artist in the competition she has a vested interest in ice carving.  Liu is the manager of an ice carving studio in Heilongjiang Province, China.  In her position she manages 22 artists that are contracted worldwide to do ice carvings.

Her company is one of the largest in the country.  The aim of the company is to develop ice sculpture art to a high level.  It strives to publicize the Chinese national culture and offer the most elegant works in the field of ice art sculpture.

Her clients include hotels, resorts, restaurants and special event planners.  Clients can request sculptures that range from small single block pieces to grace a table to a Cinderella coach complete with four horses.  Depending on the piece ordered she will direct one or more of the artists to travel to the site and complete the work to the customer’s satisfaction.

Another member of the Chinese delegation is Qi Feng An, considered a master carver in China.  An has come to Fairbanks for the past nine years to compete.  This year he and his team received the third place honors.

The Fairbanks Ice Park is divided in two parts, the surrounding part is mainly made up of the more than two blocks sculptures such as this body builder representing only a small portion of the entire work on March 10, 2012. Baptiste Haentjens / Sun Star

In addition to the competition, An enjoys the weather, trees and friends he has made through the years, he said, speaking through an interpreter. One of the overall themes is the camaraderie throughout the ice carving community.  In addition to ice carving, An works with wood carvings and sand sculptures.  An’s hometown is Harbin in the northernmost province of China.

An competes locally in his home during the Harbin Ice and Snow Festival. The festival is held annually beginning January 5 and lasts for more than a month.  Harbin, often referred to as the “Ice City,” is recognized as the cradle of ice and snow art in China.  The Ice Lantern Festival was the forerunner of the current festival and is the most popular part of the overall event.   Like the Fairbanks championships, the Harbin festival is also a gathering of international artists for ice carving and snow sculptures.

In order to defray some expenses of his two month trip to the competition, An sells ice chisels made in China. Other carvers have talked about the Chinese chisels and how uniquely constructed they were for working with ice.

An and some of his team were also excited with their new purchase of the new iPad. They were thrilled with the price they had to pay at Sam’s Club for their purchase.

Ice carving tools are often adapted from other job-specific tools.  An’s favorite tool is the chainsaw.  He has no preference on bar length; each one has its place in the artist’s toolbox.  The American-made die grinders are the best, he said.  When making cross-hatching in a sculpture, the hand chisels tend to chip edges. Electric die grinders don’t chip the edges, allowing for a cleaner-looking finished product.

On a late afternoon in March with the temperature hovering around zero degrees, I spoke with Julio Martinez, whose hometown is Mexico City. Martinez is in his fourth year competing in Fairbanks.

Martinez is a chef by trade.  Carving ice is his full time job in his home country.  Ice carvings and food have always complimented each other and carvings are a common sight on buffet tables.  Many chefs are skilled in making carvings from ice as well as from food.

“I can become the best ice carver because there is less competition in my country and I want to be the best at what I do,” Martinez said.  “There are many great chefs in Mexico City, but few great ice carvers.” He travels throughout Mexico City and is always busy, he said.  His ice carvings are desirable for special occasions and command a premium price.

“Fairbanks is the toughest competition because you have a week to work.  Some days I work twenty hours and can barely lift my arms.  It is also the most dangerous because the huge blocks are lifted by equipment which is very hazardous,” Martinez  said. He has more friends here than in his hometown and loves to come here, he said.

There are other ice carving competitions throughout the world, including Latvia, Finland, Germany, Italy, Norway, China, Japan, the Philippines and Canada.  The skill set for this type of art is specialized and the community of carvers who compete at this level is relatively small.  The artists uniformly expressed a friendship that crossed cultural lines and language barriers.

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