The sculptures, made of ice, are larger than life.
A snowy Sunday afternoon has drawn me to the ice park in Fairbanks. A competition is taking place, the World Ice Art Championship, one in which large blocks of ice, harvested from frozen ponds, are being transformed into exquisite works of art. The sculptures stand in clearings between black spruce, some carved from a single block of ice, others assembled from multiple blocks. The multi-block works are finished, detailed, lovely in composition. At the single block sites, many are still rough-hewn, in progress, as their sculptors work to liberate from the ice block the forms they envision in their heads.
I find my friend Heather Brice working on her sculpture. She looks tired but smiles, determined, as she brushes the softly falling snow from her piece. She, like the other carvers, has been working practically around the clock for the past few days in order to meet the judging deadline. The effort shows in her piece: an elegant seahorse, polished and delicate, swimming upright. Its unique anatomical shape is evident at once in the curvature of its neck, the down-pointing snout, its long tail, the hard, bony plates of its exoskeleton. True to its ability to change color to match its habitat in the sea, it has turned translucent to fit into the icy landscape. I gape, unable to comprehend that such loveliness can result from a rough block of ice.
It is a remarkable process. In this outdoor art studio of a black spruce forest, carvers use chainsaws, forklifts, chisels and picks, as they work with their medium in its various states of water. The temperatures have remained far below zero most of the winter, both aiding and hindering their progress. The frozen ice, strong and dense, is less likely to fissure and crack when supports are sawed away. On the other hand, challenged by such numbing conditions, wearing parkas and mittens and facemasks, these artists are most certainly among the most stoic in the world.
The subject matter of the sculptures are as varied as the artists that created them. They come from all over the world – Japan, Latvia, Canada, Russia, Alaska – to try their hand at winning over the judges with their piece. A sculpture called “The Heart of the Universe” exudes power and presence through ice spikes that radiate outwards. In “The Blessing of Baikal” a mythical father bestows a blessing upon his river-daughter before she flows away from him. There is a tribute to Kobe Bryant, the basketball player, at his untimely death, as he towers high above his teammates, caught in the action of the game, dunking the ball into the net. “Not Forgotten” pays homage to fallen veterans, in the figure of a motorcyclist who stops at the half- open gate of a cemetery.
Later this Spring, the sculptures will slowly disappear, acquiescing to a gentler season, but their thawing will not lessen the fortitude they showed in the winter. We will recall them in our memories, how they glittered in the sun, were shaped by wind and reflected in the changing light. It is earth art at its finest, drawing attention to the landscape precisely as it is returned to it.