Feb. 13, 2013 - Issue #904: The Sugar Trade
The art of carving and stacking massive blocks of ice
"Out of about 50 to 60 big sculptures that I've done, I've had four crashes, like completely gone," says Calgary's Scott Harrison, who's been carving for the past 12 years. In the case of such an unfortunate event, you hit the bar for a beer, he says with a laugh, but not before you leave a little something behind to commemorate your hard work. "You find the biggest piece that's broken off and you carve it into a tombstone, a 'rest in pieces' kind of thing, and then you walk away."
It can be a shattering experience watching 30 hours worth of carving, torching and chiseling hit the ground, but, if you ask Harrison, that's all part of the game.
"That's what makes it really fun. That's what really makes it exciting. You just go for it and put yourself out there. And, you just get one shot at it."
Last month, Harrison's sculpture "Sound of an Angel" came in third at the international ice carving competition in Lake Louise—a competition that he's won twice—while his submission for the Ice on Whyte Festival came in seventh. Although not in the top three, his seventh finish won him and his teammate a silver medal.
"Their score was still 82.9 out of 100. That's how tight the competition was this year," said Wanda Bornn, the producer of the Ice on Whyte Festival. The first place sculpture had a score of 93.9 and the ninth place sculpture had a score of 78.1, warranting a bronze medal.
"That's the level of talent we have," she says.
Harrison's sculpture for the festival was his first attempt at an abstract design. It's a violin with a theatre mask above it and a treble clef that turns into the hand playing the violin.
"I wanted to do something new," says the high school teacher and former chef. "Half of the fun is planning something you've never done before."
Harrison plans his sculpture months in advance of a competition. First he comes up with an idea, then the design, and then he draws it out over and over again until it's ingrained in his mind. That's a lot more affordable than buying blocks and practising the design, he says, pointing out that blocks of ice weighing 300 pounds are $80 to $100 each and typical competitions require carvers to use 15 blocks. "Sometimes people maybe carve [their design] in styrofoam or maybe try and attempt small pieces of it, some of the more intricate stuff, but it's not really financially viable to drop $1500 to $2000 just to practise."
So, Harrison and carvers like him rely on their experience to get through to the end of a competition.
An important factor that carvers have to keep in mind is the temperature, he says. For instance, if it's zero degrees, the carver will use a completely different stacking plan than if it's -20 C.
"If it's -20, think about dropping an ice cube into a warm liquid. It cracks and then amplify that crack by 300 pounds of ice for each block," Harrison explains. So, when the temperature drops well below zero, rather than using water to tack the blocks together, a carver will make a dry slush made with snow and water, and they will put that on the corners of the blocks to hold the sculpture together.
Because the success of a sculpture depends so heavily on the weather, Harrison says he always has more than one design and stacking plan ready to go. "I've been carving for 12 years now, so I understand, 'OK well if the weather's like this, I might need to change my idea.'" He says it's better to do that than attempt a sculpture that's sure to crumble.
"You don't want to invest 28 to 34 hours—three days—into something that just falls down. That's kind of poopy, to say the least."
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