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Snow Carving

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When some people look at snow and ice, they imagine slippery sidewalks and roads, cars that won't start and snowballs hitting them in the head. Others, who are more optimistic, see art. With snow or a block of ice and the right tools, these visionaries can sculpt these cold elements into swans, dragons or even mermaids.

This sculpture won a national competition. The team that carved it was from Alaska.
Courtesy of: Winterfun, Inc.

Some parts of the world are lucky enough to receive busloads of the white stuff. So why not put it to good use? There are championships and contests all over the world in the winter.

Burlington, Vermont, holds an annual winter festival with a snow sculpting competition.

Cathie Dinsmore lives in Vermont. She is new to the hobby and plans on competing. Because it is the Chinese year of the dragon, Dinsmore and team members will sculpt a dragon from snow.

What you create is only limited by imagination. The first snow design was probably created more out of utility than anything else. You have heard of igloos, right? They are snow houses that sheltered Inuit from the blustery winds.

Your first attempt doesn't have to be so elaborate, or even useful. Dinsmore says snow sculptors start with a block of snow and chisel away what they don't need.

Dawson List uses this principle. He uses ice to create table centerpieces for weddings, banquets and Mardi Gras parties. List, an ice sculptor in Louisiana, says one silly question he gets asked a lot is "don't you get cold working in a freezer?"

He explains that to sculpt ice, you have to go where the ice is. "And you're not exactly in there [a freezer] wearing a T-shirt and shorts. To some extent, it gets easier over time to handle ice bare-handed for extended periods of time," he says.

"Then again, maybe I'm just freezing to death all the nerves in my hands."

Ice and snow sculptors work either outdoors, or in a walk-in freezer in warmer climates, where the ice is. List, in fact, is having a freezer built into his home.

Paul Dawkins is a world champion sculptor of sand. He also likes to use snow to fashion creatures and castles. Unlike List's sculptures, which last about four hours, Dawkins' snow sculptures can last for days and weeks outside in the chilly winter temperatures in Canada.

According to List, there are about 600 members of the National Ice Carving Association. But "there are far more people who carve ice at one point or another." He guesses that about 5,000 to 10,000 people have done ice carving. Many of them are chefs.

Interest in ice carving is growing, says List. "Carvings are getting more complex and the quality is getting better because of advances in tool technology and increased dedication of the carvers," he says.

Dawkins also says snow sculpting is popular, even though winters seem to be getting warmer. More people are entering competitions. Dinsmore agrees. Last year, about four teams entered the competition in Vermont. This year, 16 teams have entered.

List was first introduced to ice sculpting in Albuquerque, New Mexico, when he worked in a hotel. A chef there trained him to do the carvings. Today, List goes to culinary schools and gives demonstrations. However, that doesn't mean you have to be a chef to give it a try. But you should take lessons, says List.

Ice is a hard material and hard to coax into shape. That is, until it turns to water. To work with ice and snow, you will need to lift heavy blocks of the material. As such, physically handicapped people may not be able to maneuver quite so easily.

Dinsmore says a physically handicapped person could contribute. He or she would not be able to work at the higher levels of the sculpture, since some are over 10 feet high. But he or she could be very good at providing the details of the piece.

Donald Berg is a snow sculptor in Wisconsin. "Snow does limit some movement. However, if you think things out, you would be surprised how far you can get. Desire can take you a long way."

Dinsmore says a person can get hurt, if they get in the way of their teammate's sawing or shoveling. Once last year, she remembers dropping something heavy on her foot, but she could barely feel it under all the layers of clothing.

Getting Started

The tools used to shape ice are dangerous. List relies on a chainsaw for much of his work, but also uses other power tools. "I know a number of sculptors who have injured themselves, particularly with the die grinders," he warns.

"The tools are very sharp and operate at high speeds in an unpredictable environment, and often, time constraints make sculptors take more risks than they should."

The most expensive tool is a chainsaw, which costs about $300, he says.

Tools to work in the snow are less expensive and can usually be found around the house. Dawkins uses household, masonry and woodcarving tools, as well as your everyday spade and shovel. The estimated cost is about $30, says Dinsmore.

Berg points out that the best part of snow sculpting is that the material is free.

He became interested in sculpting snow as a child. "My mother was very entertained when I made things in the yard. Making a snowman wasn't creative enough for me," says Berg. He progressed to higher levels. Today he is the executive director of a company that sanctions national, local and state competitions.

Learn by doing is what Berg preaches. He says to start small.

"Fill a plastic waste barrel with snow, packing it as you fill. Turn the barrel upside down [which should leave] you with a compressed form of snow. Find or create a model of what would fit in the form and remove all the snow that doesn't look like the model," he explains to beginners.

Dinsmore and teammates learned by doing at the nationals last year. They noticed that they did not build a small-scale model as other entrants had, and the team did not bring enough tools. Luckily, they were able to borrow tools from other teams. This year, the Vermont all-female team was better prepared. They came heavily armed with chisels and saws and a small-scale model.

Dawkins turned his love of sculpting snow into a thriving business. He now owns Sculpture Connections that caters to big name clients, such as Pepsi and Disney. Many chefs also know how to create ice sculptors, so if you are not interested in starting your own ice sculpting business, as List did, you can become a chef and create ice carvings occasionally.


Academy of Ice Carving and Design
This page has many links to ice sculpture companies around the world

Ice Culture, Inc.
If ice is your thing, take lessons

Ice Sculptors and Sculpture
Lots of links here

Insane Ice Sculptures
Don’t try these at home!

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