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The Ice Sculpture Business


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Today, a select handful of people make a living as ice sculptors. Using $1,700 chainsaws, a bevy of hand tools, and CNC machines, they craft mind-boggling works of art from 300-pound blocks of ice. The trade requires strength, endurance, and an engineering skill-set, as well as artistic talent.

How did ice sculpting become a burgeoning industry, who are the artists at its helm, and how do the economics of the industry work?

A Brief History of Ice Sculptures

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Historically, the uses of ice have been well-documented. Nearly 4,000 years ago, Inuits in present-day Alaska and Canada harvested ice from frozen lakes to build insulated shelters (igloos). Written records dating back to 600 BC clarify that farmers in the highlands of China orchestrated controlled floods, froze the water into ice, and used it to preserve perishable foods. The artistic and functional sculpting of ice is believed to have also begun in China, centuries later.

In the 1600s, native fishermen in the province of Heilongjiang carved “ice lanterns” to guide them through dark winter terrain: they’d freeze buckets of water, carve a hole in them, and insert candles that would illuminate the ice. The trend spread throughout northeastern China, and ice became a popular medium for outdoor lighting.

In 1740, Russian empress Anna Ivanovna, who had a malicious sense of humor, ordered an ice palace to be constructed. She then proceeded to force Prince Mikhail Golitsyn into wedlock with “an exceptionally ugly servant,” and ensured that the “fur-laden” couple were locked within the frozen mansion’s confines for the night.

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$1700 chainsaws?! 300 pound blocks of ice?! This is beautiful madness!

Geege, it's beautiful and nerve racking -- that's 10,000 pounds of ice!

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Harbin’s ice city; Lintao Zhang

Gorgeous!

Today, Daukas doesn’t compete much anymore and a new “king” has taken the throne. Junichi Nakamura hails from Harbin, China, a city with a rich history of ice carving. Each January, Harbin turns into an icy wonderland for its International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival and whole ice cities are erected. It’s been informally referred to as a “wonder of the world,” and Nakamura is its most-prized product.

In recent years, he’s won 10 out of 14 World Ice Art titles he’s competed in. Other artists attribute his success partly to his “willingness to take risks that other sculptors can’t stomach.” During a competition in 2005, Nakamura performed a risky final maneuver on his masterpiece and was nearly crushed to death by 10,000 pounds of ice.

And then there are the Chainsaw Chicks.

The Chainsaw Chicks, an all-female ice performance group, follows the same business model. Dominque Colell, the group’s front-woman, got her start in ice sculpting as a Miss America beauty pageant contestant. “My dad suggested ice carving as my performance for Miss Ventura County,” she says. “I ended up doing it and winning.” 

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She’s since made a career of it, and has amassed a collection of 13 chainsaws -- all of which serve a different purpose during her performances with The Chainsaw Chicks. The group has toured internationally, appearing on numerous television programs and even opened a show for rock group Hootie and the Blowfish.

“It’s kind of a big part of where the ice carving industry is heading,” one performer tells us. “It’s getting harder and more competitive to make a living selling sculptures -- the business is so big. This is a way for us to just appeal to a completely different market.”

Hootie and the Blowfish is still around?!

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