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Big Freeze: Competitive ice carving in a world of its own

Big Freeze: Competitive ice carving in a world of its own

Ice carvers create masterful pieces of temporary art all while working under extreme conditions.

They carve in the outdoors with no control over the temperature, which might be freezing or might be just warm enough to cause their creations to collapse. They carve freestyle pieces that are full of detail yet still finished within an allotted time frame, which varies by competition. Once complete, their work is scored by a group of judges and enjoyed by fest goers before melting forever.

Carving can be stressful but exhilarating to do and watch. The unknown conditions coupled with the artistry are the attraction, say carving aficionados and festival organizers who count on them to bring visitors to town.

Cash prizes, personal goals and a chance to win the Tour of Champions also motivate the carvers.

Mark Smith judges ice carving events including St. Joseph, Michigan’s annual Magical Ice Fest, which he helped begin about a decade ago.

Smith, who lives in Coloma, Mich., is a former competitor and National Ice Carving Association judge.

The association, known as NICA, sanctions ice sculpting competitions and is the largest ice sculpting organization in the world.

In smaller events like St. Joe’s, a team of three judges decides the winners by scoring pieces in 10 categories like creativity, utilization of ice, artistic impression and structure.

Each judge scores three categories and all the judges score the piece’s first impression, basically “the wow factor,” Smith said.

To earn a gold medal, carvers must score 900 points or better. A score of 800 earns silver and 700 or better earns bronze. Any score of 600 and more earns special recognition.

Smith said, “When it comes to competition, it has to be right to a tee. It has to be symmetrical, proportionate.” When sculpting a bird, for example, the artist must ensure the wings are the same size.

“Spectators don’t see half of what us judges see,” Smith said, noting they also look closely at the seams of the ice and finishing touches.

Chad Hartson competes in ice carving festivals and owns Ice Creations,, the largest provider of ice blocks used for the events. Located in Napoleon, Ohio, his company makes 40 blocks of ice a week that are later trucked to the various fests, including St. Joe’s.

To keep the competition fair, each block of ice must be made to a consistent size. Most competitions use a 300-pound block of ice, Hartson said. Blocks are exactly 20 by 40 by 9 ½ inches thick.

Hartson, who is a member of NICA, explained that carvers earn points at every competition. At the end of the season those points are used to determine the winner of the Tour of Champions.

“Whoever has the highest three scores out of all the competitions they’ve competed in becomes the winner.”

The key to success is often practice, Hartson said, relating ice carving to gymnastics.

“You do the same routine over and over again at different competitions while making it better. That’s the same thing the carvers do.” If they score well with a piece at a competition, they will add personal goals for next time like trying to complete it faster or add new components.

Ice carving competitions and fests are becoming more popular, Hartson said, noting that his company has a few new towns it is working with this year.

“It’s a great draw to bring people out during the winter time,” Hartson said.

Brian Smith, events manager at St. Joseph Today,, said Magical Ice Fest is one of the largest events the visitor’s center hosts. Organizers are especially excited about the 2014 fest because it will be the 10th anniversary.

Magical Ice Fest includes two main competitions – a team event and an individual one. For the individual competition, carvers receive one block of ice and have two hours to put forth their best effort. During the team event, two carvers work with eight blocks of ice and have eight hours to work on their sculpture.

The fest is a huge draw for St. Joe and Brian Smith said there are a few reasons.

“It’s a pretty dynamic event,” he said. “If you’ve never seen multiple 300 pound blocks of ice, it’s something to see. There’s also the artistic side of it, the tools they use to do it. Some of these pieces are delicate and the effort that goes in is amazing.”

The competition is always friendly with carvers helping each other when needed, Smith said. Of course, all the carvers want to win the prize money, which gets into the thousands thanks to St. Joe’s sponsorship community. The prizes allow their fest to attract the best carvers. The event is also sanctioned through NICA with NICA-certified judges who have all carved in the past.

“We try to keep the level of carving very professional so that you’re seeing something unique,” Brian Smith said. “We have a great group of carvers that comes back year in, year out. Their names are on the work so they want to do a good job.”

Jill Stone, executive director at St. Joseph Today, said, “We attract all of the great ones because it’s certified.” The carvers travel to sanctioned events to attain points for the Tour of Champions.

One of Magical Ice Fest’s highlights in 2014 will be Ice Wars, which was a head-to-head competition introduced in 2013. The cheers from the crowd determine the winners in each 15-minute battle round.

“It’s a boxing ring style format,” Stone said. “We square it off at Pleasant and State streets. There’s music in the background. The crowd goes wild.”

Based on the popularity of Ice Wars in 2013, organizers are adding bleachers to make it easier to view in 2014.

She said that while the carvers have camaraderie and great sportsmanship during regular competition, Ice Wars does bring out the smack talk. She expects even more rivalry this year as they try to take down last year’s reigning champ.

Magical Ice Fest visitors like that it’s an art form they do not see all of the time, Stone said. “It’s also a temporary medium. You see something created that is eventually going to go away. You are here doing this but if the weather is a few degrees too warm, it can cause a problem. There’s more Mother Nature type factors making it more exciting for audience, and that’s why these guys do this.

“It takes a lot of focus in their own little quadrant. They’re all set up in different corners. One false move or wrong cut, the whole thing can go down. That’s happened before. You know they work so hard and you walk by and see a pile of ice but that’s part of what makes it so exciting for the crowds and participants.”


Regional ice carvers will transform blocks of ice into a wintry, outdoor sculpture gallery during the 10th annual Magical Ice Fest Feb. 7 to 9, 2014, in St. Joseph, Mich. Artists will entertain onlookers as they carve crystal-like creations along downtown streets in this Lake Michigan resort community.

Visitors can observe carvers in action Friday evening and all-day Saturday.

During Ice Wars onlookers will cheer for carvers as they compete in 15-minute duels.

The Fire & Ice Reception will take place from 8 p.m. to midnight Feb. 7 in the Shadowland Ballroom at Silver Beach Center, 333 Broad St. Adults 18 or older can enjoy live music.

The SnowBiz Scavenger Hunt happens all weekend. Visitors can stop at the St. Joseph Today Welcome Center, 301 State St., Friday through Sunday, and pick up a copy of the scavenger hunt directions. Contestants will search for logo ice sculptures around town and enter a drawing for a prize package.

Magician John Dudley will perform magic shows Feb. 8 at several downtown locations. Visit the St. Joseph Today Welcome Center or for a list of show times and places.

Silver Beach Carousel, 333 Broad St., will turn into a tropical paradise Feb. 7 to 9. Visitors will receive aloha greetings as they enjoy hula dancer demonstrations, ride the decorated carousel figures to surfing music and enjoy treats. A list of activities and times are at

For more information about Magical Ice Fest events, visit, or call 269.985.1111.


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