The icemen cometh

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Local artists craft beauty from frozen cold

In amongst the blinking lights, bobbing snowmen, the jingle-jangle of the horse-drawn sleighs and the laughter of children along Edmonton’s Candy Cane Lane is a madman with a chainsaw.

Sherwood Park artist Kelly Davies is working on his latest commissioned piece, a Christian-themed triptych carved from crystal-clear ice. A crowd of excited children gathers as his chainsaw growls through a thick, frozen slab, sending sprays of snow everywhere.

“Whenever I get the chainsaw, I always think, man this is the coolest pencil in the world,” he says, covered head to toe in snow.

Davies has been carving professionally since around 1999 and has won medals at many national competitions. He’s the guy who carves the sculptures for St. Albert’s Snowflake Festival.

Davies says he fell in love with ice the first time he ever carved some of it at a free workshop in 1999. He had expected shards, hardness, and danger when he took the chisel to the block – instead, it carved as smooth as butter.

“It’s just so beautiful,” he says, particularly the way it glows when you polish and light it just right.

Plus it’s an excuse to play with a chainsaw, he notes.

Davies got the blocks to do that triptych from St. Albert’s Barry Collier, a veteran ice-carver and owner of Ice Works – one of the only two commercial companies in Alberta that makes carving ice.

Collier says this is the busiest time of year for his company. He just finished carving a figure skater for a client, and is getting ready to make ice slides and furniture for the Deep Freeze festival.

Right now, he’s working on a statue of Olaf, the talking snowman from Frozen. Despite spending hours in a refrigerated room in minus-17 weather, he’s not even shivering.

“The cold does not bother me whatsoever,” he says, unintentionally mangling one of that film’s catch-phrases.

Collier says he started in the ice business in the 1980s as a deliveryman for what is now the Arctic Glacier ice-cube company. He started carving when his boss’s main artist took a teaching job at Red Deer College in 1989, leaving him to take over. Nowadays, he regularly makes corporate logos and centrepieces for clients across the region, and can knock out a sculpture like Olaf in a few hours.

Cube, then carve

Collier hoists one of the 250-pound carving blocks in his garage upright using a pair of clamps. It’s perfectly clear, apart from a layer of pure white ice on one side.

“The white you see in the ice is the last part that freezes,” he explains. “That’s the impurities.”

Ice cubes and traditional carving ice are made in tall, narrow containers that freeze from the outside in, concentrating impurities in their middle and creating a white core, Collier says.

Modern carving ice is made in wide, flat, table-like devices called Clinebell machines that chill water from the bottom up, concentrating impurities at the top so they can be sawn off later. These $10,000-plus machines use purified water to reduce contaminants and constantly circulate it to release any dissolved gases, preventing bubble formation.

It takes four days to make a block using one of these machines, Collier says – he’s got seven of them out at an acreage near Seba Beach, so he can make about 12 a month. Each block costs up to $110.

Collier uses a refrigerated truck to haul these blocks to carvers throughout the region, protecting them in transport with blankets and rubber mats.

Because the ice is so expensive, carvers will make extensive plans for their works before they put blade to ice. Davies, a graphic designer, sketches his plans on a computer and traces cut lines onto the ice with a chisel, aiming to waste less than 10 per cent of his ice.

Some sculptures are made from multiple pieces of ice. These get fused together using cold water and snow, as Collier does to attach the nose to his Olaf sculpture.

Davies makes his initial cuts using a chainsaw, switching to drills with specialized bits for more detailed work. He moves cautiously, tracing cuts in the ice as if he were painting lines on a canvas.

“You can make big mistakes quick with power tools,” he notes, which is why he uses them with such care.

The last hour or so of any sculpt is chisel-work to remove the swirls left by the power tools. Pros will sometimes blowtorch a sculpture to make it extra smooth and shiny.

The way the light comes through the ice completely changes at this point, Davies says.

“It almost starts to glow from the inside. It’s really a weird thing.”

Merciless yet merciful

A lot can go wrong with ice carvings, Davies says.

“Ice is pretty merciless and forgiving at the same time,” he explains – you can glue pieces back on using water, but you might crack the whole works in the process.

“I’ve seen first-place, 40-hour carvings explode and crumble to the ground because something the wrong temperature hit it,” he says.

Ice carving is best done at about -10 C, Davies says. Colder than that, and the ice becomes brittle and can shatter like a windshield. Warmer, and your grinding boards clog with snow and the ice melts too fast for fine detail (as happened with Ice on Whyte last year).

Collier says he often gets cracks in the corporate logos he crafts since they’re coloured with paint dissolved in lukewarm water. You can be painting away and just about finished, as he was with one particularly beautiful Oil Kings logo, when … blam! Instant ruin.

“It’s like a ‘ping,’ a ping noise, and then shortly after that you’ll hear me swearing.”

And you can also just drop a sculpture during transport, as he did with a dog-sized sculpture of a Honda car one time at 1 a.m.

“It imploded from the inside out,” he says, and he had to do it all over again.

There are safety risks as well. In addition to sometimes working in -50 C weather, you’re also working with limb-mangling power tools, such as the chainsaw that almost took off one of Davies’s fingers.

Davies says it’s the drills that are the real hazard, due to their high speeds, long spin-down times, and tendency to vibrate right out of your hands.

“This is the deadliest tool in the toolbox,” he says, holding one of them.

And if you have to move these 250-pound ice blocks, you better have steel-toed boots, Collier says. He had a block land on his foot once when he wasn’t wearing them – the bruises took three months to heal.

Transient beauty

Ice carving is very much a spectator sport. Davies and Collier say they both love interacting with the crowds that gather around their works, letting them touch (and sometimes taste) the sculptures and pose for pictures with them.

“To see the kids’ reactions is enough on its own,” Collier says.

Collier says people have a natural fascination with ice sculpting, in part because it’s so rare.

“I guess people just find it hard to believe that something like this could be created from ice.”

But it’s also a temporary art form. Collier says an outdoor ice sculpture will last anywhere from a month to a day, depending on the weather, whereas an indoor one can be gone in less than six hours.

And that’s part of the appeal. “It has that moment for six hours when people really, really, really appreciate it,” he says.

“The sculpture just becomes one of a kind. Once it’s gone, it’s gone for good.”

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About Author

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.