The Sixth London International Ice Sculpting Festival

What’s the worst thing that can happen during a live ice carving? Aside from the obvious perils of working with chisels, electric chainsaws, and frozen water – sunlight is the live ice carvers’ enemy.

Beautiful, luminous sunshine isn’t the challenge we were expecting to face on the first day of the sixth London International Ice Sculpting Festival at Canary Wharf, but there it was, shining down in all its glory as our first fresh block was unveiled for carving on Friday 10 January 2014. Luckily, for us, London weather prevailed and as the competition weekend progressed the clouds – and crowds – gathered. The former bringing with it much-needed shade for our ice blocks, and the later brought the prestige of choosing our Big Block sculpture as the 2014 Public Choice Award winner.

But how did I come to be carving The Three Graces out of a two-tonne block of ice (figs.1 & 2), in front of 65,000 spectators on the wharfs of the Thames, alongside some of the most talented ice sculptors in the world ? Well, in November, as I passed my one year anniversary as a professional Ice Sculptor, I was invited to represent the UK. The invitation was a huge honour, but as a solo ice carver and competition novice, I needed a team-mate and that’s where Michael James Kerslake nobly rose to the challenge.

Together, it was up to us to conceive and deliver three set-piece ice sculptures that would impress the judges and wow the general public at the festival, and to stand with pride alongside sculptors from countries as diverse as United States of America, Sweden, and Africa. Planning the sculptures was made all the more difficult by the fact that we were responding to a brief outside of our usual artistic practices (we both have a leaning towards the abstract and architectural), and that we were working on different sides of the country.

After the warm-up rounds on Friday of the freestyle won by the Americans with a tiger entitled Run and the single block carving won by the Spanish on the theme of ‘River Life’, the contest hit its stride with the big block competition spanning both Saturday and Sunday. The brief that we were working to for this piece was ‘Fabulous Fashion’. Now I may be a female ice sculptor, but the realm of fashion isn’t one to which I’ve previously dedicated much of my creative practice. That said, Michael and I were clear from the start what we wanted our piece to convey. We were looking to create a sculpture that was distinctly British in its reference to fashion, and one that represented the classical sculpture practices which I have so admired throughout my life.

With this in mind, we devised a sculpture that combined two primary reference points – the wonderful classical group of The Three Graces (Kharites) in The Louvre’s collection, and the ultimate accessory for every London fashionista – the humble umbrella.

Aside from the creative challenges of the brief – I had a number of concerns about the live carving itself. Not least, at a meager 5’ 4”, how would I reach the top of our two metre ice block with my chainsaw? (Answer, each team was allocated one step ladder between the pair… and Michael is a little taller!) The biggest question with our challenging design was simply; would we be able to complete it in the allocated time?

This brings me to the curse and the blessing of ice carving. For me, the ephemeral nature of ice is liberating. Because of the speed with which it melts, there is less time for the artist to dwell. In more permanent materials that very permanence and the luxury of time can become a burden for the sculptor, but with ice, the freedom lies in the constrictions of speed. As a sculptor, it’s endlessly exciting to create form from a block of ice, because each day you know you’ll be starting afresh, but within this competitive environment, the time constraint was a bigger pressure than normal.

There’s no doubt we’d set ourselves an ambitious target, carving three relief figures adorned in flowing gowns from a block of ice in 12 hours, with an ice umbrella providing shelter to the graces on display. Luckily I’m no stranger to creating the human form, having honed my mould making skills in the Madame Tussauds’ studio and replicating artifacts at the British Museum – experience that has stood me in good stead for my ice sculpting work on a daily basis.

Despite our concerns about having not previously worked together, Michael and I were a seamless team, making every minute count, but making sure we took time to enjoy the festivities of the event and talk to the passersby as they enquired about the sculpture – after all, they had our fate in their hands!

And as the night fell and the competition drew to a close on the Sunday evening we downed tools, stepped away from our finished sculpture: satisfied, exhilarated, exhausted.

The teams were gathered on a podium and the winners were announced, all the while our sculptures were already beginning to melt. The prestigious award for the winning Big Block carving of an elegant lady with her dog went to Steve Armance and Mario Amagee, the Togonese team, representing Africa, but our disappointment was short-lived as we were declared the Public Choice Award winners.

Why did we win? Our competition was tough – not least from the incredibly talented Americans, Reverend Butters and his team mate Burr ‘Buddy’ Rasmussen, with their scene stealing 14’ Devil Woman, as well the Swedish team’s stunning Stiletto Shoe.

Underlying our design was the idea that the melting ice isn’t a hindrance, but rather, could create a kinetic sculpture to entertain passers-by. As such we carved the open umbrella in a way that invited the water to drip from its points down in front of the female figures. Of course, it’s worth mentioning that we possibly had a home turf advantage, but I like to think that our three graces were successful in beguiling the ice festival visitors in their own right, just as I was beguiled by the talent and generosity displayed by all who took part in the event.

Main image: The UK team winning the Public Choice Award for their Big Block carving, The Three Graces,(photo: Amazing Media UK)

Aurora Corio