Some like it cold: How the University's ice carving team sculpted its path

By Catherine Sulpizio, Daily Arts Writer
Published November 19, 2014

Surveying the Walden Pond that became the homestead for America’s great transcendentalist, Henry David Thoreau noted: “The sweltering inhabitants of Charleston and New Orleans, of Madras and Bombay and Calcutta, drink at my well.”

He wasn’t being metaphysical here — Frederic Tudor, colloquially named the “Ice King,” harvested ice from Walden Pond in the early 19th century, transporting ice for the first time — thereby revolutionizing the ordinary substance that lives cubed and un-pondered in our freezer. In the advent of its trade, block ice was a technological and commercial triumph: dozens of harvesters could be hired for months at a time, armed with horse ploughs and primitive toothy saws before transporting the blocks to cavernous storing houses where they were packed in sawdust and sent around the country.

In 2014, the 40-inch blocks of ice that arrive at the Michigan Ice Carving Team are carved from much less poetic ground. They ship to the team’s unofficial headquarters in the Michigan League from a company in Napoleon, Ohio. Advancements in the ice industry mean that the 300-plus pound crystalline slabs are about $50 per block; they are also completely clear and free of impurities.

The Michigan Ice Carving Team is a decade old, but over the last three years has enjoyed an increase in both team size and recognition. Under its current president, Engineering junior James Hamet, the team has grown exponentially.

“When I joined the team there were only a handful of people and now we have over 30 people,” he said.

However it still surprises people that the University even has an ice carving team. After all, there is a certain mystique to the practice itself. Ice carving seems daunting to the uninitiated — not only are you working against the thermodynamic clock, but your tools are a chainsaw and a plethora of vaguely menacing objects with thick cables and sharp teeth, not exactly instruments that are user-friendly. And of course ice sculpture has extinction built into its code: stallions ebb into harmless foals, the wings of angels recede into inchoate stubs.

But as the saw goes, the medium is the message, and ice’s ephemeral quality is embedded in the art. According to carvers, when working with such a volatile substance the trick to ice carving isn’t mastering the ice, but complying with it.

“It’s kind of a beautiful thing, if you make mistakes, the mistakes melt away,” Hamet said. “If you do details, they’ll be jagged at first, but they smooth out over time. We even blast the sculptures with a blow-torch afterwards, because you want them to melt, that’s how they get the perfect shine.”

And, as it turns out, the enemy of ice carving isn’t even melting but cracking. Because of a phenomenon called differential expansion, when a high-temperature power-saw comes in contact with a recently removed block of ice, the warmer exterior of ice expands faster than its icy center. The result is hairline cracks that threaten the stability of the sculpture and its clear appearance. To prevent this, the team lets the ice stand in room temperature for around an hour before carving, called tempering.

Online forums insist on specific temperatures and tempering times, but one of the team’s most talented carvers, LSA junior Neil Anderson, simply knocks on the ice which sounds less hollow as it melts. On a nippy November morning, Anderson was getting ready to supervise a carving for younger members: a lumbar vertebrae for one of the teammate’s kinesiology classes.

“You don’t need experience to join the team, it’s more of a learning thing to have fun and practice,” said business sophomore Nick Warminski, Business and Events Manager of the team. “I would have never met a lot of these people: the age difference, the major difference, where we live, etc., but we all click because we love to ice carve.”

But despite the team’s relative inexperience, it has placed in several competitions over the years. Last year, the team’s treasurer, Engineering junior Sam Friedman, and his partner LSA and Art & Design graduate Alicia Chiaravalli placed third at Plymouth Ice Festival. They carved an aquatic scene, complete with a turtle and a grove of coral.

Ice carving is considered a culinary art, which means the team mostly competes against local trade schools and community colleges with culinary programs. The schools have dedicated carving space, funding and practice time, making Michigan’s placement a remarkable feat.

Like any craft, ice carving is equal parts artistry and technical skill. First, teammates working in groups of two to three trace a template on big sheets of papers using images projected on a wall. The template is ‘glued’ on the ice block with water, and a chainsaw makes the rough structural carves, called big cuts. After that, a mix of manual and electric tools transform the cookie cutter-like silhouette into a recognizable three-dimensional form.

“A logo for a company will take about an hour and a half, but a full sculpture takes closer to three to four,” Hamet said.

Those three to four hours are a dance between the notoriously mercurial medium and the artist. Choosing the right image is crucial — a too-small image doesn’t efficiently utilize the expensive block of ice; Hamet recalls a full block of ice that slowly turned into a tiny swan, “a valuable lesson,” as he put it.

An unwieldy structure poses its own problems, too: Friedman recalls an event when his partner fused two blocks of ice together, however it wasn’t cold enough for the fuse to properly set, causing the sculpture she had spent five hours on to topple over.

And of course, just mastering the tools is an adjustment. “(Using the power tools) is incredibly exhausting. Last year I started going to the gym just so I could work out my arms so I could hold the chainsaw because it’s so heavy,” said LSA junior Isabel Geracioti.

When Hamet joined, he remembers being “given a chainsaw and told to just have at it; that was pretty fun.” Today the training process is less unstructured, albeit a touch safer, too.

“It’s a difficult substance. We have two students we’ve trained as instructors. Mostly because they’re better than me. The big cuts are always intimidating to people; we don’t like to just hand people a power tool anymore off the bat,” Hamet said.

But after the daunting big cuts, Geracioti says her favorite part is watching the sculpture emerge from the three-dimensional shape.

“I get to use the left and right sides of my brain. Carving is this amazing fusion of art and science.”

There is a philosophical term called ‘reification’ which describes the transformation of a set of human experiences into a concrete object; indeed it seems the art object is a static projection of the artist’s particular creative period. The artists of enduring mediums — the writers, singers, painters — all rely on having that transcribed record of their process: to return to, to abandon, but at least to possess. And yet, the carvers all were individually drawn to ice carving’s temporary nature. The coming into being, rather than the concrete end, was the most important part to them.

“It’s kind of beautiful,” Hamet said. “You know you’re working for something that will be gone by the next week, but it’s perfect that way. When I make the art, the purpose is not to leave a mark on society or my footprint somewhere. I’m doing it for myself and anyone close enough to appreciate it. The fact that it’s temporary makes it more valuable. Every second it’s changing slightly — a few minutes later, it’s a totally different sculpture.”

For Friedman, seeing his prize winning ice sculpture melt away wasn’t disappointing.

“It makes it easier to carve because you know your mistakes aren’t going to be there forever,” he said. “Photos are enough, because I was there, I carved it, I remember the work I put into it — I’m never sad to see it melt away.”

As every artist knows, finding a space for creativity in a commodity-driven world is always the lurking challenge. Ice carving is an expensive hobby: in addition to ice blocks, tools, transportation and space add up. While Friedman applies for grants from the school, the team is privately funded, which means all money comes from custom orders and donations.

When Geracioti, Warminski and Hamet joined the team three years ago, its fate was uncertain, as there had only been a handful of passionate teammates who left with their individually owned safety equipment. After they graduated, the team was left with only a handful of saws.

“There’s always the risk that the team is not going to survive, because it's labor intensive, a lot of people view it as an impractical art and it does take a special individual to dedicate the time to it,” Geracioti said.

“I think the kind of people who are into ice carving are those who aren't terribly concerned with earning recognition or wide-spread praise for their work, but rather those who like to challenge themselves and do something for themselves,” she wrote in an e-mail interview.

While an interest in the niche hobby initially bound the group together, Hamet and Warminski both saw the need for a focus on management. To Warminski, his greatest contribution to the team is continuing its development.

“I’m detail-oriented, so I like handling the logistics of setting dates, recording the amount paid, calculating the profit. I really enjoy carving, I do what I can, but I stick on the side and do the business stuff.”

During their upcoming fundraising event, the Main Street Ice Carving Extravaganza, which Warminski organizes, 20 to 30 Main Street businesses will commission the team for individual sculptures. According to Warminski, it’s the team’s biggest fundraising event. For the entire weekend in February, the team carves for twelve hours a day in front of the participating stores. Newcomers get to practice carving a giant engagement ring for Abracadabra Jewelry or a swordfish for Real Seafood Company and curious passerby wander closer before hopefully patronizing the various restaurants and shops.

Hamet has taken an equally hands on approach as leader, organizing a demonstration during SpringFest and coding a new website over the summer himself. The sleek website has an order form, a tongue-in-cheek e-mail (somelikeitcold) and is peppered with social media links and press — all hallmarks of a technologically savvy business.

As Hamet put it, “Branding is everything. People would say ‘do you guys have t-shirts?’ And the answer was no we didn’t have t-shirts, but now we have public events, we have t-shirts, we have a flag.”