Ice sculptures are both labor-intensive and luxuriously temporary, made-to-order monoliths whose shimmering surfaces reflect hopes, dreams and achievements.
If you are a water molecule in Seattle, you have plenty of company. Seattle is drenched in the stuff. It’s speckled with lakes, veined with rivers and frequently soaked in mist and rain. Its western border is embraced by Puget Sound. If you are a water molecule in Seattle, you could end up as ice — slushing a tire, melting into lemonade, or encrusted — semipermanently — inside a University of Washington dorm freezer.
But if you’re lucky, you might be made into art.
At Creative Ice (creativeice.com), one of Seattle’s premier purveyors of ice sculpture, ordinary tap water is transformed temporarily from public utility to belle of the ball. Ice sculptures are both labor-intensive and luxuriously temporary, made-to-order monoliths whose shimmering surfaces reflect hopes, dreams and achievements. Creative Ice’s owner/operator/ice wrangler Steven Cox has been carving ice in Seattle since the ’80s; back then, giant ice swans were all the rage.
“Right now the swans and hearts are dead,” Cox says with a laugh. “They’re associated with ’80s weddings. But there was always a reason for them: Swans mate for life.”
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Companies like Creative Ice and Janson Iwakami’s Amazing Ice (amazingice.com) tend to cater to corporate clients, hotels and restaurants — the cost of an ice sculpture usually starts around $400 and goes up from there — infinitely.
Also seemingly infinite? The number of ideas that can translate to ice. In a carver’s hand, a slab of ice might end up as a giant grasshopper, a regal lion, a luge full of Jaegermeister, or perhaps an over-the-top seafood display, destined to hold crab legs, raw oysters and cocktail shrimp beneath the logo of some tech startup or sports team. Creative Ice can even make full-size ice furniture, like tables, sofas, or an ice bar — yes, that’s a full bar carved from ice, where an actual bartender can mix libations.) (Pro tip: If you’re planning to sit on an ice sofa, throw a sheepskin over the seat so you don’t stick.)
“We also do the craft-cocktail ice; that’s a growing part of our business: the squares, the spheres, the diamonds,” said Cox. “We have bar managers come here with their glassware and design their own ice cubes.” Partygoers can even drink shots of vodka out of shot glasses made of ice. (“They’re fun to smash,” says Cox.)
To make any of these things, you need heat, power and maybe an account at the hardware store. Artists take to the ice with Dremels, drills and chain saws in a surprisingly robust spectacle that creates a delicate effect with brute force. The sculptures’ raw material is less complicated — the stuff that comes out of the tap is plenty pure for carving. Perfect clarity is achieved by making the ice in block machines that keep the water inside circulating as it freezes so there are no impurities or bubbles. The end result can be polished to such a high sheen that it could be mistaken for crystal.
It even gets to compete at the international level. Part-time ice carver Chan Kitburi — he works for the postal service at Marysville 9-to-5 — is a consummate competitor, a winner of ice carving’s ultimate contest, the World Ice Art Championships in Fairbanks, Alaska. Kitburi has earned the top trophy twice (with two different teams of four), once in 2011 and once in 2015.
Ice sculptures for competition are massive structures that require several days (and the aid of forklifts) to complete. 2015’s winner, “The Fighter,” was a towering dragon, its wings outspread, doing battle with a Roman centurion.
Seattleites can watch two men attack giant ice cubes with power tools for free. During Seattle Center’s annual Winterfest (this year’s fest goes through Jan. 6), Kitburi or Iwakami will perform exhibition ice carving around noon every Saturday (Dec. 29 is the last day), sanding and grinding and sizzling Seattle’s water into something for the people of the city to gaze at until it escapes, drop by drop, down a drain to the sea or evaporates upward to become the city’s winter rain.
Ice sculpting is, of course, truly “extra” — sculptures are composed of 300-pound blocks of ice and can be as big as your imagination. Nobody really needs a 5-foot-tall frozen version of their corporate logo.
But sometimes “extra” is the point, and if you’re a little Puget Sound water droplet, you might find yourself becoming part of someone’s special day.
“Years ago this guy contacted me and he wanted me to create a statue of a man on one knee with his arm stretched out,” said Iwakami, “and then he was going to drive it to this special place up in the mountains and propose to his girlfriend with the ring in the statue’s hand.”
According to Iwakami, she said yes.