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Transforming a block of ice


WORLD Radio - Transforming a block of ice

A master ice sculptor inspires the next generation to carry on the tradition at the annual youth competition

The annual youth classic hosted by Ice Alaska in Fairbanks, Alaska Photo by Grace Snell

LINDSAY MAST, HOST: Today is Tuesday, April 16th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Lindsay Mast.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: Ice sculpting.

Every year, thousands of tourists flock to Fairbanks, Alaska, for the World Ice Art Championships. Scores of world-class ice carvers show up, eager to show off their skills.

MAST: The origins of ice sculpting aren’t crystal clear, but Inuit peoples have been building ice and snow houses here for an estimated 4,000 years. These days, modern artists use the medium to create dazzling and intricate sculptures.

REICHARD: WORLD Feature Reporter Grace Snell recently caught up with a master ice sculptor who’s working to pass the craft on to the next generation.

JIM WARNER: Okay, can I get everybody’s attention…

GRACE SNELL: Inside a snow-bound workshop, a sturdy man with a shaggy gray beard addresses a roomful of students.

SOUND: [Kids talking and laughing, Warner instructing]

His name is Jim Warner, and he’s been carving ice for about 25 years. The last 15 of those he’s spent chipping in here at the annual youth classic hosted by Ice Alaska—the Fairbanks nonprofit that organizes the World Ice Art Championships.

WARNER: I’m really trying to instill in these kids the enjoyment that you can have in doing something like this, and, and just the satisfaction of finishing something in a short period of time, that is pretty unique.

It’s Warner’s way of keeping alive the craft he loves.

WARNER: When I first got into it, you could list, just offhandedly, 30 to 40 people that were ice carvers that actually did stuff around the city. Right now there is maybe five or six of us. And the youngest one of that group is probably in middle/late 50s.

After a short huddle, Warner dismisses the students and leads the way into the bright glare of the Ice Alaska park. Warner doesn’t have any work out here this year. He’s 72 now, and his doctor told him to take it easy after a recent back surgery. But he wants to make sure the next generation of ice carvers are ready to carry on the tradition.

WARNER: The overall idea is to give them the mental tools to be able to go ahead and go through this thing and come out to what they hope they can do with those pieces of ice.

A winding path leads straight into a stand of black spruce trees. Everywhere, the wood is dotted with a dazzling array of sculptures: dinosaurs, gladiators, acrobats. Even a humpback whale.

WARNER: I actually really like the flower. One back there. Straight, straight back that way…

They sparkle like cut glass in the afternoon light.

SOUND: [Sanders whirring, kids chattering]

Just ahead is a small woodland clearing where the kids quickly set to work. The teams are already halfway through the three-day competition, and starting to feel the crunch.

SOUND: [Chisels scraping on ice]

Big ice blocks poke out of the snow all around—most already half-transformed into fanciful creatures.

Elizabeth (center) and Pauline with Jim Warner working on their ice sculpture

Elizabeth (center) and Pauline with Jim Warner working on their ice sculpture Photo by Grace Snell

WARNER: They’re going to be having the cat sitting on a shelf with books underneath. And the cat has got a bunch of books that are piled up here. And one of the books is going to be open and the cat is basically reading the book.

Nearby, two boys, Noah and Philip, are working together on a giant bowl of ramen noodles. The design started as a joke, they say. But now, it’s well on its way to becoming a three-by-four foot reality.

WARNER: So there was a crack that went through the whole block right there. So when you’re working on this side, just be really careful that you don’t run into the same situation or what happened over on this side.

Warner makes his rounds, checking in with students and offering advice. He shows them how to use an odd mix of tools. Everything from chisels and sanders to a snaggle-toothed instrument called a “pickle fork.”

WARNER: This, the pickle fork, this is strictly, like, for ice. Here's an example of that burr thing that I was talking about, that green thing there, you see how it has all the little teeth sticking out of it…

Warner says carving ice is faster, and more forgiving, than working with traditional materials.

WARNER: If you mess up and break off pieces of stone or break off a piece of wood or something, you basically almost have to start over. All they do is just basically make sure that the two ends will fit together well, and squirt a little water in there and 10 minutes later you’re done.

But, there’s a trade-off. Ice carvers have to brave freezing temperatures and watch all their hard work melt away in the next summer thaw.

SOUND: [Sander whirring]

The work can also be dangerous, too, Warner says.

WARNER: All the power tools that do have safety guards on them, 99 percent of the time, we take those safety guards off because they get in the way when we try and work in the ice itself.

Warner and the other instructors handle the chainsaws at the youth competition.

Trying to bring an artistic vision to life on a deadline is never easy. Two students, Omar and Jay, are busy shaping their block into a woman’s portrait.

OMAR: This is the only actual human I’ve done. I’ve done a bird, a snake, a clamshell, a whale tail, and this…

Omar says he doesn’t feel great about their progress so far.

OMAR: It’s, it’s different and kind of frustrating to be honest…

Another competitor, a ten-year-old named Lincoln, is already nearing the end of his project.

LINCOLN: The reason why I did this for my grandma is because she says that I’m her vitamin D. And, and that’s really nice of her. So her birthday is coming up, so I’m making a huge sun and a heart in the middle, I love Grandma.

Many of the students keep coming back year after year. And Warner says, for him, that’s the biggest win.

WARNER: So, to me, I think that’s kind of really a good thing. Because that means that they must have had a good enough time and felt that they did a good enough job with what they did in the past that they want to come back and try again.

Just two days later, all those long, cold hours of carving finally pay off…

SOUND: [Clapping, cheering at awards ceremony]

Elizabeth and Pauline won first place with their statue of a cat reading a book. But all the students gathered on stage to celebrate completing over 24 hours carving outside in temperatures below ten degrees.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Grace Snell in Fairbanks, Alaska.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.


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