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    Categories: Arts & Culture

Carvers ice up St. Albert

It’s a typical Wednesday night in December on Perron Street. The chill air nips at your fingertips as the traffic grumbles by, apparently oblivious to the guy by the community hall with the chainsaw.

The saw growls as Kelly Davies takes a surgical slice out of a tire-sized block of ice, sending streams of snow everywhere. This is careful, cautious work; the block is worth $100, and the heat from the saw could shatter it.

Davies, a professional ice sculptor, was in St. Albert this week to carve a large frozen statue for the city’s Snowflake Festival. The statue, now complete, is of a little girl holding a big snowflake, and can be seen in front of the St. Albert Community Hall.

Making it took three men, 12 hours, and about 953 kilograms of ice, as well as chisels, sanders and chainsaws. “It’s definitely a performance art,” Davies says.

Icy artistry

Festival organizers asked Davies and his team to carve a sculpture for the event, says Lynda Moffat, president of the St. Albert Chamber of Commerce. “The children and adults love that ice sculpture,” she says, and it was a big draw last year. “It adds a little bit of magic to the whole thing.”

Davies has carved at events and competitions across Canada, including Ottawa’s Winterlude and Lake Louise’s Ice Magic. This is the second year he’s carved a snowflake for St. Albert.

A computer animator from Edmonton, Davies says he got stuck on ice sculpting about 10 years ago after taking a course on it. An artist at heart, he says it was the ease of working with the material that drew him to the craft.

“The second I touched the chisel to the ice, it split through like butter. I was hooked.”

St. Albert’s Patrick Earl is his co-carver. An economic development officer with Sturgeon County, he says ice carving is a way to improve communities through art.

“It’s something great to do before Christmas,” he says. “Everyone’s out shopping and we’re out doing this. I’d rather be doing this!”

From cubes to crystal beauty

Carving starts with high-quality ice. Davies shoves a roughly 160-kg slab across the snow and manhandles it into position. Unlike regular cubes, these specially made blocks are clear as quartz. “It’s $100 a block,” he says, and takes about four days to make.

Ice cubes normally have white centres because they freeze from the outside in, he explains, trapping impurities in the middle. For pure, clear ice, companies use special freezers that chill blocks from the bottom up, pushing impurities to the top where they can be washed or shaved off.

Davies and Earl first hack the cubes into manageable chunks with chainsaws and nail-covered sanding boards. The chainsaw draws the crowds, Davies says, but the real artistry comes later with chisel-work.

They glue the blocks together by squirting water from a syringe between them. Listen carefully, Davies notes, and you can hear the blocks pop as they fuse together.

“The secret is the weather,” he says — too warm, and the water takes forever to freeze; too cold, and it makes the ice explode.

Once you’ve scratched your design on the blocks, you break out the chisels and Dremels. After hours of carving and polishing — occasionally with blowtorches — Davies and Earl illuminate their work to bring out the sparkle.

“When the sun goes down and the lights come on, it takes on a whole new life,” Davies says. “It’s like working with a precious gem.”

Davies says his favourite sculpture is the one he does every year: a large nativity scene near Candy Cane Lane in Edmonton. “Even if it’s a million degrees below zero and my hot chocolate froze before I could get the lid off, that one is very special to me.”

Earl says he sees ice sculpting as a fun combination of art, construction, time and weather. “It’s pretty cool.”

Kevin Ma: Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.