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Despite cold snap and a fire-destroyed building, World Ice Art Championships carry on

  • Author: Laurel Andrews
  • Updated: March 12, 2017
  • Published March 12, 2017

FAIRBANKS — Six days. That's all artists have to carve intricate sculptures from massive blocks of ice, each weighing more than 2 tons, during the multiblock competition of the World Ice Art Championships.

It's already hard work. Teams of sculptors work upward of 16 hours a day with chisels and chain saws in what many say is one of the most prestigious ice art carving events in the world.

But this year came with additional challenges. The artists battled extreme cold. And the event organizers scrambled after their main building, also the home of one organizer, was destroyed last year in a fire.

Sculptors were greeted by colder-than-average temperatures, according to Ben Bartos, meteorologist with the National Weather Service. March 7 even tied the day's record low of minus 37, first set in 1972.

Mat Chaloner and Mat Foster, who came from Liverpool, England, to carve in the competition for the first time, hadn't quite anticipated the challenges of working in such cold.

The pair run an ice carving business — working twice for the HBO series "Game of Thrones" — but have always worked with smaller chunks of ice, and never in Fairbanks-like conditions.

"If you'd come and seen us halfway through, we were all ready to cry; we thought we weren't going to get it up," Foster said of their massive David Bowie sculpture, an ode to the musical legend who died last year.

The warmest day of carving was their first, on March 4, when temperatures maxed out at 10 degrees and bottomed out at minus 13, according to Bartos. But it got colder from there, with lows dipping to minus 30 the next day and then dropping further, with lows of minus 38 during the sculptors' last four days of carving.

Ice doesn't behave the same way in intense cold, sculptors said. It's quick to shatter and fracture. And water, which is normally used to "glue" pieces together, would freeze so fast that instead of fusing pieces, it'd push them apart, Chaloner said.

Equipment breaks down. Costs go up. Electrical cords snap.

"Try to start a gas chain saw at negative 40. It takes a blowtorch," said Bradley Groszkiewicz of Michigan, whose team won third place in the multiblock abstract competition for "Sun Voyager," a replica of an Icelandic Viking ship sculpture.

But Da Cheng Liu, who has come to the event five times from Harbin, China, wasn't fazed, he said through An Zhe, who translated for him.

"We forgot the cold," Zhe said, when they started working. Liu's team won third in the realistic competition for "Chinese Artist Leisure Boat."

Organizers said Friday that the cold was likely why attendance at the park has been markedly lower than usual. They hope to make up for it as temperatures climb. Usually, ticket agents tally 45,000 visits to the park, said Dick Brickley, the event manager.

'The ice is why they come'

The World Ice Art Championships, run by the nonprofit Ice Alaska, is in its 28th year. BP is its major sponsor, without which organizers say there would be no competition.

The two main events are single-block and multiblock competitions, each with two categories — realistic and abstract. In the single block, competitors are given an 8-foot-tall, 5-foot-wide, 3-foot-deep piece of ice weighing 7,200 pounds. In the multiblock, artists are given 10 somewhat smaller pieces of ice, each weighing 4,500 pounds.

The ice has a natural blue tint that contrasts with the snow. It is harvested from a pond on Ice Alaska's 25-acre property near the University of Alaska Fairbanks, where the competitions are held.

President Hank Bartos called the ice "the Arctic diamond." It has a crystal-clear quality and can be harvested in huge pieces, thanks to Fairbanks' lengthy winters, he said.

"The ice is why they come," Bartos said of the sculptors.

Ice Alaska has exported that ice around the world. It's gone to Anchorage and Israel, Brickley said. Magician David Blaine used it in a 2000 New York stunt in which he froze himself in the ice for three days.

The ice is special because it's free of many impurities that would otherwise make it opaque, and its thickness allows for its blue tint, a UAF professor explained in a 2003 Chicago Tribune article about the event, "The World's Finest Ice."

The ice itself is not super-expensive — those blocks shipped to New York were only $900, Brickley said — but the shipping cost about 10 times that much.

'We lost everything'

Beyond the weather, Ice Alaska faced another challenge this year. During the early hours of Dec. 16, a fire consumed its main building, which served as a warmup and concession area, a space for sculptors to eat and a storage facility.

The building was also Brickley's home.

"We lost everything," he said.

Fire consumed Ice Alaska’s main building and Dick Brickley’s home on Dec. 12, 2016. (William Rockwell, Fairbanks Fire Department.)

Brickley has been involved with the ice park since its second year. He was home at the time and managed to get everyone out of the building. No one was hurt.

Brickley said investigators determined the cause of the chimney fire to be carbon buildup from fuel oil. State fire marshals couldn't be reached Friday for additional information.

Now, Brickley and his wife have moved to a building on the outskirts of the park, which also took over as the main headquarters of the event. He said that once the event is over, they will start looking for a new place to live.

The competition moved forward despite the loss. Brickley said volunteers were out harvesting ice the next day.

Volunteers — about 140 of them this year, many from out of state — are the backbone of the competition, Brickley said. The competition costs about $650,000 to put on, but it would be much more expensive without volunteers.

This year, the ice park put up three small tents with chairs and tables for warming up, and two larger ones with concessions. They have a vision for a new main building but right now the funding isn't there.

"It was really impressive to see how well the volunteers pulled together the competition even with the main building having burned down," said Heather Brice, a Fairbanks ice carver who has participated in the competition since 1999. Her team's "March Madness," an Alice in Wonderland-inspired scene, won first place this year in the realistic multiblock category.

Ice Alaska has faced challenges before. In 2011, it was unclear whether the competition would continue after it got an eviction notice from the property it rented from the Alaska Railroad. But Bartos, a Realtor, pulled together a deal to purchase land.

"We had to take everything apart at the old site and move it down here," Brickley said.

"It was a monumental task," Bartos said.

Regardless of the challenges, the  event's reputation among sculptors is intact. Foster called it "the Olympics of ice carving," though he said his team likely won't be back next year due to the expense.

Organizers hope they can keep leveraging the event to increase funding and visibility.

"We keep growing; every year we get bigger and better," Bartos said.

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