Dick Brickley, chairman of Ice Alaska, was a peculiar sight as he nailed up a sheet of plywood showing the layout of the grounds for this year's World Ice Art Championships. Peculiar because he was working outdoors in his shirtsleeves in Fairbanks on March 1. The sun was out, the sky was blue, the winds were calm and temperatures were in the mid-20s.
That may be cold in some places, but after spells of daytime double-digit sub-zero readings, it felt balmy to the locals. And, in all honesty, it was the first time this reporter can remember taking in the fabulous sculptures of the ice park without a hat or gloves.
Brickley had a big grin as he went about his work at the opening of the month-long festival, and nice weather bringing out the crowds was only one reason for his good cheer. This year marks the 25th annual edition of the competition, which has weathered rocky finances and relocations, yet continues, thanks to the efforts of volunteers, to attract the best international ice carvers in the business.
"We had 25 applications for multi-block," he said. "That's up 30 percent from last year." The slots were snatched up almost as soon as the application period opened in November, he said, with teams from Europe, Asia and America vying for the chance to work with Fairbanks' coveted "Arctic Diamond" ice.
The exceptionally clear, rock-hard material is harvested on a pond right on the grounds of the George Horner Ice Art Park. Giant saws were still cutting out chunks weighing about 3,600 pounds that a parade of forklifts and cranes shuttled to the multi-block competition sites at the start of the month. The teams would each be given 10 blocks and have six days to finish their projects before the judging on March 7.
"We have five times as much play area this year," Brickley said, gesturing toward the Kids' Park, a playground of cars, critters, an ornate train, an ice maze and long slides. "That's five acres," he said.
He also noted the upgraded skating rink and sled dog rides hosted by the park.
Then he pointed to a two-story vaulted chapel under construction. "That's new this year," he said. "We'll have our first wedding there on March 8."
Most of the artists involved in the multi-block competition also took part in the single-block contest, which took place a week earlier. Each block measures three by five by four feet, but the challenge for the sculptors is to make them much taller, wider and more graceful. The tensile strength of ice at cold temperatures allows an artist to suspend and cantilever tons of carved ice from very small contact points. For example, "Connie's Spirit," by Edwin Hutchison and Brian Connors of South Carolina, has a larger-than-life angel posed with its feet off the ground.
What are South Carolinians doing at an ice carving contest? Hutchison and Connors met at culinary school; many participants are associated with the food industry, where fancy ice carvings are often the centerpieces at catered affairs. Another contestant was Steven Weber, executive chef at the Garden of the Gods Club and Resort in Colorado Springs, Colo. His entry -- perhaps a reference to the club's menu --shows a giant bear about to dine on a salmon.
When cold, ice keeps a shape as rigid as marble. The single-block winner in the realistic category, "Love in Motion," by Victor Dagatan and Joel McRae of Atlanta, features two acrobats, male and female, hanging from a "silk" (the aerialist term for a strip of cloth used as a rope) and holding thin rings in their outstretched arms. Almost nothing in the sculpture is supported by anything directly beneath it.
Ice is marvelously shapable, but simultaneously fragile. Even experts can't be sure when one of their elements will give way. "Queen of the Forest" is a glorious, tall piece by Russians Egor Stepanov and Alexey Andeev. With an exquisitely executed stylized tree held by a folk-art female standing on a mammoth, it won fifth place in the abstract category. But hours after judging, one of the mammoth's tusks had already broken off.
Russians dominated the top place abstract pieces. "Carnival," by Ivan Zuev and Nikkolay Stepanov, took first place and the artists' choice award. Zuev and Stepanov's composition shows two faceless figures surrounded by Mardi Gras masks.
Second place went to Vitaliy Lednev and Sergey Loginov for "Windy Day," in which liquid shapes spin into the air. In the third place finish, "Flight to the Sun" by Eduard Ponomarkenko and Aleksei Tugarinov, two curved columns rose high above the viewer to support a bird.
The designation of "abstract" or "realistic" is mainly up to the artist. There's very little difference, visually, between the abstract "Windy Day" and the fifth place realistic finisher, "Lunch," a surreal depiction of Venus' flytraps by Tsagaan Munkh-Erdene and Enkherdene Ganbataar of Mongolia.
Making the chunk of ice go further than its dimension brings out the imagination. For "Brick House," it looks like Americans Dean Murray and Jillian Howell cut the block into several normal-size bricks that were then reassembled into a large wall with a female figure, also made of bricks, emerging from it.
At the time of this writing, Interior Alaska temperatures were again heading well below zero -- tough on the toes and noses, but good news for ice sculptors.
Part of the mission of Ice Alaska, which operates the competition, is to increase the pool of future competitors by encouraging young carvers. A competition for sculptors age 18 and younger will start on March 17. The work will be displayed at the new Frances and Clarence G. Beers Youth Sculpture Park, named for the long-term sponsors of the youth ice art contest.
But you don't have to be a youngster to try your hand at the art. Julio Martinez, the lead ice sculpting instructor for Ice Alaska, has been holding ice sculpting classes since January and will continue to do so this month. Participants will a do a small ice sculpture to take home with them. Hot drinks and tools will be provided. Some students will have their entry fee waived for the Amateur Open Exhibition, March 11-14.
Next year, who knows? You may find Martinez's students wielding a chain saw on a scaffold 20 feet off the ground in the multi-block contest.
Reach Mike Dunham at email@example.com or 257-4332.
By MIKE DUNHAM