what it's like to be an ice sculptor, part one

Dawson List (L) and Junichi Nakamura work on an ice sculpture in 2004 in Alaska. Photo by Patrick Endres.
Working with many time world champ Junichi Nakamura in 2004 at a competition in Alaska.

I get a lot of questions about what it’s like to be an ice sculptor, and I know it’s the same for other carvers. I totally understand this. Before I started carving, I was fascinated by it for months and I can only imagine that I asked all sorts of questions of the only ice sculptor I knew. So, this is kind of a self interview on what it’s like to be an ice carver. There’s a lot of stuff crammed in here and I tried to be as honest as possible, even with a few embarrassing incidents. If you’re an ice sculptor yourself, then I’d bet you can relate to at least some of this stuff.

the allure of ice

I can't really explain the fascination with ice sculptures. But I know it exists. I know I'm fascinated with ice sculptures and that's why I still enjoy what I do, even after a couple decades. I suppose it has to do with lots of things: the way the light shines through them, the fact that they are only around for a little while, and how they usually signify an important event. I’m sure that part of it has to do with making art out of something that’s around all the time, almost anywhere you go. Ice and water are just a very basic part of our lives, but when they leave the mundane to become art, it’s exotic.

explaining to people what you do; that that’s ALL you do

Sometimes, when I'm asked what I do for a living, I answer that I make ice sculptures and I get kind of an odd look. Then they’ll ask something like, “But that's not all you do, right?” They seem to have trouble with the idea that there would be enough work for me to do to pay my bills. The fact is, people and companies spend a lot of money on special events. Ice sculptures are an unusual and eye-catching addition to the special events and if you're good at what you do and you market yourself properly, there's a good chance that you can make a living at sculpting ice, even in places where it rarely gets cold.

the way you become an ice sculptor

I think most ice carvers stumble into ice sculpting by accident. Until recently, I don’t think there was ever a child that said “I want to be an ice sculptor when I grow up,” except maybe in Harbin, China, or possibly Sapporo, Japan, places where there is a long tradition of sculpting ice. One thing that’s really neat, is that recently in the U.S., we've seen the art passing from father to son (and even mother to daughter).

Personally, I happened on ice sculpting when I had a summer job at a hotel. The sous chef, Victor Rede, was extremely generous with his time and knowledge, and taught me a lot because he could tell that I was interested. Even though we now live in different states, we still are occasionally able to get together and sculpt some ice.

the dangers

There are lots of dangerous parts about sculpting ice. The obvious dangers are the tools. Everyone knows that a chainsaw is dangerous. Funny thing though, the chainsaw is the one that rarely gets you. For example, I've never cut myself with a chainsaw. (Need to find some wood to go knock on now.) I do know several carvers, three to be exact, that have cut themselves with their chainsaw, one of which was potentially life-threatening. But I know many more carvers have cut themselves with die grinders and angle grinders. These tools are less predictable and you hold them closer to your body than you do the chainsaw. And then of course, there are the chisels. Ice carving chisels are razor-sharp when properly sharpened and they can cut deep. I use ice picks a lot too, and we all know how dangerous those are. The tool I probably cut myself the most with is a small handsaw. I’m often using one during set ups, where I’m not wearing protective gloves. But these cuts are rarely deep, just annoying. Even more annoying because they come at inopportune moments; you don't want to get blood on the carving while you're setting it up.

I can’t count the number of times that I’ve stood in the middle of a growing puddle of water while wielding an electric chainsaw or some other power tool attached to an extension cord that snakes off to the nearest outlet. You would think that I just dropped the hair dryer in the bathtub, but this really isn’t the case, for a variety of reasons. When I carve at hotels or other large properties, it’s not uncommon to get helpful suggestions from the maintenance department on how to avoid shocking the bejeezus out of myself. When I explain that I’m okay, they walk away shaking their head, likely believing me to be an idiot whose time is nearly done.

In extreme ice carving, a significant danger is frostbite. I do know sculptors who have either gotten frostbite or have come very close to losing fingers or toes. But this situation is unusual; usually it takes the extreme temperatures at Alaskan competitions or something similar.

Here’s a clearly dangerous ice sculpture in Alaska. Fortunately, Junichi Nakamura was well aware of the hazards.

A large part of the danger in sculpting ice is the ice itself. In fact, the only significant injury that I've ever had was from dropping a heavy ice sculpture on my big toe. And there's not much you can do for that except take painkillers. Broken ice is also very sharp. I've cut myself on ice many times. And then, of course, it's also slippery. I probably came close to giving myself a concussion recently when I slipped on a piece of ice and fell in the freezer. My head nearly hit a sculpture, but my hearing protection got in the way and softened the blow. Lucky.

In my travels to deliver ice sculptures over the past couple of decades, I've had a couple of close calls. Twice, I've been in car accidents when I had ice in my truck. One time it was my fault, the other time it wasn't. One time the ice sculptures were completely undamaged, the other time they were destroyed. Fortunately, the sculptures that were destroyed had already been used. I've never been in an accident when I was carrying raw blocks of ice. I dread the thought of what could happen with all that weight in the back of the truck. Hope I never find out.

Perhaps the most sinister danger in sculpting ice are the long-term effects. After over 20 years of sculpting ice I am now seeing some of the effects in my hands and other joints my body. I've been fortunate, however, that I've done little or no damage to my back. That's a bit surprising to me considering how heavy some ice sculptures are and the awkward movements that are sometimes required. Lifting heavy ice sculptures can also result in really fun injuries like hernias. I so far have avoided that as well, however. (Knock on wood again.)

you want me to put the sculpture where?!

As long as I'm talking about the dangers of ice sculpting, I'd better mention the setups. Once in a while, a client wants you to set up an ice sculpture in a place that's just not safe. I remember bringing five ice vases into one event and staring at the event coordinator in disbelief when I was told to put the vases on top of tables stacked two and three high. As I recall, we had to make some changes in the setup. Another time, for a Super Bowl event, I'd been told that a large skull sculpture that I was making would be on a platform 5 feet tall. No problem. I got there and found out than that the platform for the sculpture was at least 2 feet taller than that. Big problem. A skull, you see, is a very difficult sculpture to lift because there are very few hard edges to hold onto. And this one was very heavy. We pulled it off, but it turned out to be one of the scariest setups that I've ever done and I was angry at the client for putting me in that situation. However, I almost completely forgot about that when I happened to be able to meet Dan Aykroyd at the event. Totally unexpected; I didn't even know he was going to be there. I’m glad I wasn't in a bad mood for that.

Dawson List meets Dan Aykroyd at the Super Bowl Media party in New Orleans.

the cold

I mentioned frostbite before, but I've never really faced that. I have though, on a number of occasions, lost my ability to stay warm. I suppose this is how hypothermia starts. It usually happens when I'm so tired and so worn out that my body just can't do it anymore, no matter how many layers of clothing I wear.

And there are some things you just can't do with gloves on, so you take your hands out of your gloves and do what you need to do. That's not a comfortable thing when it's really cold. To some degree you get used to it though; I’ve held melting ice for long periods with just my bare hands. On the other hand, I don't deal with hot things very well.

Dawson List poorly dressed for -29 degrees F at the Fairbanks, Alaska airport
-29˚F outside the airport in Fairbanks, Alaska while still wearing my clothes from New Orleans. Make sure you see the minus in front of the “29.” I put on a jacket within seconds of this pic.

the work attire

Even though I live in the Deep South, I find I have a lot of parkas and long sleeve sweater-ish type garments. I also look forward to October, when it starts getting a little cooler. And I kind of dread April. Humidity sucks. Currently, my freezer is at 13°F. I like carving at that temperature, even though the ice is a little prone to cracking. I definitely have to bundle up for long periods of work in the freezer, and layers are the best way to go, so you can adapt depending on your activity level. Good gloves are crucial and many ice sculptors use thick blue waterproof gloves with removable liners. I don't know if they’re specifically for sculpting ice, because they come from Japan and all the writing is in Japanese.

the office

My "office" is a small walk-in freezer with shelves, workspace, and tools lining the walls. There might be a couple thousand pounds of ice in there too, some carved, some not. The lights are bright fluorescent tubes above. They’re special fluorescents that are specifically made for cold environments. I also have an office chair in there that I'll sit down in to work on certain pieces of ice or just to take a break. This office chair is just like a regular rolling office chair, except for the part where I accidentally cut it with a chainsaw one time. My office frequently looks like a snowman exploded in it; the snow gets everywhere and you never get it all out unless you shut off the freezer. Usually, there are also a few drinks lying around that I was unable to finish before they froze up. I always forget to take them out and thaw them.

the tools

blue painted Stihl chainsaw
A super snazzy chainsaw that I won at a competition; I’ve never used it for carving ice. It’s too pretty.

the chainsaw

The chainsaw is the one that everybody asks about. It's also the one that everybody knows about. They'll ask you if you carved that sculpture with a chainsaw. Most times, the answer is “yes,” with qualifications. I usually point out that I move to progressively smaller tools as the sculpture takes shape. But the chainsaw is fast, loud, and effective. It's a very versatile tool for sculpting ice.

the chisels

Ice carving chisels are the traditional tools for sculpting ice. The best ones are amazing tools, made of decorative wood and steel that I can only compare to sword steel: razor sharp. When a high quality ice carving chisel is properly sharpened, there really is no substitute for what it can do in the hands of a skilled sculptor.

flat chisel for sculpting ice
specialized ice chisel; image courtesy of Ice Crafters

the iron

Oddly enough, the tool that people are the most surprised by is the iron. When I'm setting up a sculpture and using a warm iron to clean up the ice, onlookers will almost always comment. I usually explain that I'm just getting the wrinkles out.

last minute orders

I totally get how last-minute orders happen and they happen a lot. Events have a budget and sometimes ice sculptures are the last things that they try to fit into the budget. So they call you with only a few days before the event, and they hope that you can help them out. Sometimes though, the extra stress is just not worth the hassle. As I get older and hopefully wiser, I try to be smarter about which last minute sculptures I’ll take and which ones I won't.

watching sculptures melt away

People often asked if I'm sad when the ice sculptures melt. The simple answer is no. I think ice sculptors have a deep understanding and acceptance that their artwork is ephemeral. To me that's part of the appeal. (Besides, I've made thousands of ice sculptures. Where would they all go if they didn't melt?) I always take pictures of sculptures that I'm happy with and I can't remember a sculpture that I was completely happy with; I guess I've never created my masterpiece. When the sculptures melt, all my mistakes are slowly disappearing. You might think that this idea is sad and that it leaves me unfulfilled. To the contrary, this is the ice sculptor’s version of job security.

getting to contribute to so many special events

A great part of sculpting ice is that you become a part of some very special events in people's lives. Your ice sculptures are attached to an event that really means something to people. And you have to take that responsibility seriously. It helps to remind yourself that your artwork is going to be in lots of pictures that people are going to look at for years to come. That adds some pressure, but it also adds some quality and commitment to the work.

carving the same thing over and over again

I've carved a lot of fleur-de-lis ice sculptures. The odd thing is that I didn't used to. When New Orleans started its road to recovery, that's when the orders for fleur-de-lis ice sculptures started showing up. In the years before that, there were very few fleur-de-lis carvings. I can't say that I look forward to carving a fleur-de-lis very often anymore, but I try to make small adjustments and change up the design a bit once in a while to keep it interesting. I do like how they look in ice.

fleur de lis ice sculpture

great idea: the mobile Mardi Gras ice luge

One of the best ideas I've ever had for an ice sculpture was to put an ice luge in a rolling cart and take it down to the French Quarter on Mardi Gras Day. That ice luge went all over the place. All sorts of drinks were poured down it and the people drinking the drinks were wearing all sorts of crazy costumes. Too much fun!

Jamie Midgley pulls a cart with an ice luge down a French Quarter street on Mardi Gras Day.
My friend Jamie just happened to be dressed like a polar bear that Mardi Gras Day!

Dorothy Vader tries to take a shot from an ice luge.
Dorothy Vader? tries to figure out how to take a shot off the ice luge while wearing her costume.

Believe it or not, there’s MORE! Go on to Part 2: the screwups >>

related links

ice sculpture of Olaf the snowman from Frozen    extreme ice art video link    life as an ice sculptor, part 2 link

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