Culture in the Vail Valley Local Spotlight

The Art of Ice Sculpting

Most of us look at ice sculptures with wonder. How was the carver able to make that line? Curve that curve? Carve pieces that light up?  Many pieces are incredibly detailed and so complex, they amaze.

The art of ice sculpting dates back to 600 B.C. when ice harvesting first began. In fact a collection of stories found in Shih Cheng, or Book of Sons, which was written at that time, describes the lives of the Shensi warrior-farmers who lived in northwest China and flooded their fields with water in the winter. When the water froze, writes the author, the ice was cut into blocks, stored in an icehouse and used in the warmer months to keep the fish fresh.

Over the years, the molding and sculpting of ice became much more sophisticated, incorporating various techniques with the use of tools. In the 1600s hunters and fishermen from the Chinese province of Heilongjiang, which is on the border of Russia, fashioned ice lanterns for dark winter nights – freezing water in buckets, then removing the buckets and inserting a candle to make a lantern. Soon the trend spread and people began hanging decorated lanterns at their homes and displaying them at festivals.

In Russia, in the mid-1700s, empress Anna Ivanovna had a house built of ice, from the river Neva, for special events. And in 1896, in an effort to rescue its flagging economy by luring tourists, the town of Leadville, Colorado had “The Ice Palace” built. A crew of 250 men, working day and night, built the structure –  that covered five acres –  in just 36 days, utilizing 5,000 tons of ice and included towers that reached 90 feet high and 40 feet wide.

These days, hundreds of people pay hundreds of dollars to spend a few days at the Jukkasjarvi Ice Hotel in Sweden that features illuminating moving light settings and an ice bar fittingly called “Freeze.” As well, events like the Town of Avon’s, American-themed, “Fire and Ice,” are featured in many parts of the world. The Presidents’ Weekend event showcased six world-class sculptors who each had three blocks of ice and three hours to complete their pieces. The artistic results included Captain America and Elvis with a guitar.

Finding ice sculptures as both decorative statues and functional display pieces has become commonplace as the art has been incorporated into many culinary schools’ curriculum. But it doesn’t stop there. Artists, like Edwards’ resident, Paul Wertin, have taken ice sculpting to a higher level – creating pieces that leave viewers wowed!

Wertin, who studied two-dimensional art in college – mostly painting and printmaking – got hooked on his craft through a friend. “I enjoy the challenge,” says Wertin enthusiastically. “I’ll throw ideas out to a client, give them a sketch and drawings, and work with them to figure out what it is that they’re going to get.”

Once a client makes a decision, Wertin has his work cut out for him. Last winter, he was the featured artist at the Town of Vail’s “Triumph Winterfest AlpenGLOW,” which took place along the Gore Creek Promenade. The exhibition highlighted Wertin’s 10-foot tall ice screen, “The Logan Ice Theatre,” on which an array of images and videos that captured Vail’s 50th anniversary’s celebration of winter sports were splashed throughout the winter. To add to the spectacle, Wertin created Japanese-inspired lanterns nestled around and inside aspen tree trunks.

A block of ice is 20-inches wide, 40-inches tall, 10-inches thick and weighs 300 pounds. One block is used for most sculptures that might serve as a centerpiece, for instance, at a buffet.

“If I’m going to carve a single block sculpture of, say, an animal or something along those lines, I begin with a sketch,” explains Wertin. “I start on paper. And a lot of times, I’ll sketch the piece the same size as the block and is going to be a silhouette. It’s going to be the main-viewed angle of whatever it is. Then, I’ll put that on the block and trace it with the tip of a chainsaw.

“After that, I’ll take the paper off, and with the chainsaw, I cut it all out so now I have it punched out of the block. Then I turn it and start working on the three-dimensional portion of whatever it is.”

Usually, the tools Wertin uses go from big to small, depending what he is carving. In most cases, he begins with a chainsaw that takes away the biggest chunks of ice.

“I take the piece down as far as I can with a chainsaw,” describes Wertin. “I can get pretty detailed with it by rounding and smoothing the ice down. But still it’s going to be somewhat blocky – almost like a cubist kind of sculpture.”

The next tool Wertin goes for is a cylindrical rasp that spins and has various grits, kind of like sandpaper, that can take a big gauge out of the ice or just smooth the piece. Once he has the shape he wants, Wertin does detailing with bits. Again, these are spinning on the end like a Dermal tool – a rotary tool – and is used for adding texture or accent lines.

If Wertin is working on a big project, like the one he did for AlpenGLOW, he sculpts on-site, stacking blocks and carving them into anything he wants. “Once you have the blocks, you just stack them like Legos and carve away,” Wertin says, with a laugh.

Of course, the weather has a lot to do with how long outdoor sculptures last. “There are three enemies of ice,” reveals Wertin. “Direct sun, wind and rain. And rain will just destroy them. Last December, I created polar bears and penguins for Beaver Creek Winterfest. But when it rained in February, it was all over.”

Wertin does not work in a freezer, preferring his studio, where he can adjust the temperature by just opening the door. His likes to work on a piece for a few hours before putting it back in the freezer to let it get cold again. “I’ll go onto something else,” he says, “and then pull the sculpture out and take a fresh look at it.”

Mats that are used for horse stalls cover the floor of Wertin’s studio. “The mats give me some ‘friendliness’ on the ground,” he explains. “I can slide a piece in and out of the freezer. I also have a hydraulic lift, so I’m not bending over and killing my back all the time. When everything is done, it all goes into white, vinyl handled bags.”

It takes Wertin about two hours to carve a single block sculpture. A carving of that size ranges from $350 to $500. To allow it to keep its shape for the length of an event, the piece is placed on a plastic tray to which a hose is attached and placed under the table skirt to empty into a bucket.

Fortunately, Wertin has never had a mishap. “You know, you think about it when you’re going to an event, because there’s always ‘that’ moment where anything can happen when I’m setting up. I’ve dropped things in the studio before, but never on site,” he says, as he knocks on the wooden table.