Ice artist Chris Swarbrick talks technique, plans for the Saint Paul Winter Carnival
The Saint Paul Winter Carnival has been a Twin Cities favorite since 1886, when legend has it that the event began after some thought the city seemed uninhabitable and boring during the winter. Since then, the festival has developed a huge following, with events including the crowing of the Fire King, his Vulcan Krewe, the Klondike Kates, and of course, King Boreas and the Queen of Snows.
With over 350,000 visitors nowadays, it's clear that St. Paul knows how to heat things up in the dead of winter. And while this season hasn't resulted in the usual snow-capped skyline, it's not deterring the event organizers at all. Visitors can expect ice skating, parades, art shows, ice palaces, great food, warm drinks, and countless other activities for anyone looking to pull on their snow boots and romp around the city.
Of course, the famed ice carving contest will take place during festivities as well. We talked to local ice wizard Chris Swarbrick about the chills and thrills behind his art.
You started your company in 1999, but how did you first get into ice carving?
I got into ice sculpting completely backwards. Most people learn to sculpt either in culinary
school or working for another ice carving company, and then start their own business. I had rarely seen an ice sculpture when I started a molded ice sculpture franchise called Ice
Occasions. It was cutting-edge technology at the time that produced lovely, crystal-clear
sculptures from a mold.
I quickly learned once in business, however, that there was no mold for every event, and my customers wanted customization, so I had to learn pretty fast how to pick up a chainsaw. With the help of some great friends who also carve, I have been able to hone my skills. But I have never been very artistic.
What kind of carving do you usually do?
Most of my sculptures are for special events: Weddings, birthdays, anniversaries, corporate parties, product launches, charity fundraisers, winter festivals. Different events have different seasons, so it keeps you busy all year round.
Do you do other sorts of sculpting, like wood or clay?
Believe it or not ice keeps me busy enough. I have a few wood carvings and I would like
to try more in the future. I'd also like to spend time with a stone cutter, just to try
learning more about sculpture.
Is there a special secret to carving ice?
The secret to the crystal-clear ice is the special machines that they are made in. These machines make a 300 pound block of ice, and use filtered water and special pumps
that circulate the water as it freezes. This removes all impurities and oxygen to create a
perfect crystal structure.
What are your preferred tools when sculpting or carving out of ice?
I have taken a few classes from one of the best ice carvers in the world, Steve Brice. So
he has had a big influence on the way I carve. He has created many innovations in tools,
and I use of number of his special bits. I use a chainsaw to get the rough shape of the
sculpture, but then I move on to my die grinders that have these special bits.
What kind of carving can visitors expect to see from you at the Saint Paul Winter Carnival this
My partner Greg Schmotzer and I are carving a piece called Pride. It will feature a pride of lions, with a male lion standing on a rock and a lioness sitting at the base. Another lioness will be carrying a cub, while another is playing with her tail, and there will be two more cubs wrestling. It will be a lot of carving for us to get done in two days.
What's the best your favorite part about the Winter Carnival's ice carving competition?
My favorite part of the carnival is being with your fellow carvers and admiring their creativity while learning something new that can make you a better carver. I like the opportunity to have ice be center stage so people can see just how magic ice carving can be.
Minnesota is a very cold place. Do you think that's helped you be able to carve so much around the Twin Cities? Do you think you'd fare as well in a place like, say, Miami?
There are ice carving businesses all over the world, in cold climates and warm. You have to remember that the original use of an ice sculpture was to keep food cold on the buffet line, so it had a practical purpose in warm climates that may not be needed here.
Minnesota does have a rich tradition of ice carving though with the ice castles and Winter Carnival. Also, our climate does make for a better winter festival or outdoor ice bar, as they can last for months instead of hours.
There are so many ways to use ice sculptures and structures. What's something that
people wouldn't normally think of to do with ice for an event?
In the last 10 years, the face of ice sculpting has really changed. With the advent of new technology, it has allowed our creativity to really break through. An ice sculpture is not
just a swan on the buffet table any more. We do things that are both pleasing to the eye, or that enhances guests' experiences. We now hang ice on cables to make ice chandeliers and
ice curtains, we can design ice furniture and ice walls that make great photo ops, plus individual ice serving dishes and drink glasses, ice martini luges, and drink chillers continue to be very popular. You can even have a color portrait painted in ice!
What was the craziest thing you've ever carved?
It was a piece in Alaska for the World Ice Championships. Alaskan ice is huge! It's 6' by 4' by 3', and you have 10 of these blocks to create a sculpture. Our piece was over 25' tall. We were cutting pieces off that we did not need that were larger than most of my ice carvings.
IF YOU GO:
Saint Paul Winter Carnival 2012
109 W. Fourth St., St. Paul
Live carving takes place at 9 a.m. Thursday, January 26, and Sunday, January 29
Sculptures will be on display in the park through February 5
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