frozen masterpieces

mist of ice chips plumed into the air as chainsaws, grinders and other tools brought an artistic vision to life.

From what had at one point been a rectangular block of solid ice was transforming. A penguin, leaning forward with its wings outstretched, began to take shape.

Stephan Koch of Indiana Ice Studio worked meticulously, using fine tools to turn the rough outline of the bird into a flawless sculpture created directly from frozen water.

For these and other ice sculptors throughout Indiana, their artistry is done on an ever-changing medium. Ice carving requires them to work quickly to ensure their medium maintains its shape, but keeping a gentle touch with their tools to the delicate material doesn’t break to pieces.

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The conditions can be difficult. But the end result is a temporary masterpiece cast in crystal-clear ice.

“Ice is very appealing. It’s a transparent medium that never stays the same,” Koch said. “I like the fact that I can do what I feel I’m good at and enjoy.”

Ice sculpture is primarily one of the culinary arts, where chefs use custom-made pieces to add flair to the food and drink being served. People pay to have swans and hearts serve as centerpieces of wedding spreads.

Displays with corporate logos grace company parties and conferences. The swankiest parties have full bars carved entirely out of ice.

But increasingly, it also has become recognized as a serious artform. National and international competitions recognize the top carvers, whose detail and form rival sculptors of any other more-established mediums.

In December, the Indianapolis Museum of Art featured the Indiana Ice Studio for a exhibition during their Winter Solstice celebration.

“We’ve had them for the past few years. They take their chainsaws out and carve up block of ice, and people can watch that happening live,” said Scott Stulen, curator of audience experiences and performances at the museum. “We thought it fit into the winter theme and an art theme together.”

Entire wintertime community festivals, including events in downtown Indianapolis and Fishers, feature ice sculptors creating in public before a captive audience.

“People who want to dress up their event into something more elegant, you get an ice sculpture,” Koch said.

Koch started ice carving as a student in culinary school. At the same time, he began competing in ice sculpting competitions while living in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

He found himself increasingly drawn to ice sculpting over his other studies in school.

“I liked cooking, but I was always sit in my culinary classes and think about ice carving,” he said. “I kind of discovered I was an artist at that point, that I had a latent talent.”

Ice carvers approach their art the same way a carver looks at a piece of marble or granite. When they look at a block of ice, they see the figures and forms within that need to come out.

The standard ice block that Koch works with is about 300 pounds.

Once he has an idea for a sculpture, he creates a template and put that design directly on the ice. The rough silhouette of the sculpture is cut away first, before it is refined and cleaned off to give it a crystal-clear look.

Some qualities of ice, such as its propensity to melt, make it challenging to work with. But it also offers its advantages, Koch said.

“Ice is very temperature sensitive, but if you’re in a sheltered environment, it’s not too difficult,” he said. “It’s actually a lot softer than wood, and it doesn’t take nearly as long as metal.”

Inside Koch’s studio, massive freezers offer the ability to work in freezing conditions and maintain the ice while they carve.

Ice carvers use a mix of power tools to create their artwork. Small chainsaws cut larger pieces of ice off of the block. Sanders help to gently buff out and smooth an area

Die grinders, traditionally used to polish or machine metal, have been co-opted to allow carvers to work the tiniest details out of the ice.

Koch founded Indiana Ice Studio in 2001. Throughout his career, Koch has competed at the annual National Ice Carvers Association U.S. Nationals event, ranking in the top six carvers multiple times.

He has also taken part in the World Ice Art Championships in Alaska, an international competition bringing the best carvers in the world together.

His portfolio contains fantastical award-winning creations.

One of his first place winners depicted a pair of flamingos lifting off the ground, the individual feathers in their wings curling in mid-flight. A host of seahorses cling to seaweed while bubbles rise around them in another.

An intricately decorated gazelle, with swirls and curly-cues etched into the body, leaps into the air.

“There are a lot of sculptures you do that are just sculptures. Then there are times you get inspired to do something breathtaking,” Koch said.

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From block of ice to masterpiece

Steps from the National Ice Carving Association on how to sculpt ice

1. Design: It is a good thing to have drawn your design freehand once or twice. If you have a collage of photo, pictures, or drawings available during carving, your sculptures will improve.

2. Template: This is a vital step to the process. Prepare your template on newsprint or cardboard cutouts. Graphing is a quick and simple way to transfer your design from paper to ice using a grid.

3. Tracing: Apply template to ice and trace. This step requires a die grinder with a straight or tapered cutting end mill bit.

4. Cut out: From the first dimension, remove all ice that is not part of the first dimension of your design using a chainsaw.

5. Perfecting: With the first dimension cut out, use a die grinder or sander to perfect every curve, square of every line and make that front view appear exactly as your template appears. This step will ensure that sculpture will hold out during the melting process.

6. Blocking in: Standing to the side of your sculpture you will have to begin creating levels or layers. These layers will be left square. This process uses a die grinder and chainsaw or chisels.

7. Rounding: Once all the layers are there you may begin rounding the corners that need it.

8. Sanding: Sand the entire surface of the sculpture. You may use an angle grinder or hand sanding.

9. Detailing: With the tool of choice you will now put on your final detail, such as scales on the fish or feathers on a wing. It is important to detail after sanding. This process will allow for every surfaced to be touched whether it is detailed or not.

10. Cleaning: At temperatures above freezing you may clean with water. In temperatures between 15 degrees and 32 degrees, a torch may be used. If you have a finished surface of chisel marks, no cleaning is necessary except brushing of snow.