I do not count ice sculpting as one of my better skills, but I find myself performing it once a year as part of the Erie Ice Daze Festival at the Marshlands Museum. I am annually faced with the task of turning two conjoined blocks of carving ice into a single work of art. Armed only with an electric chainsaw and a wood chisel, I seek to turn a large expensive chunk of ice into something other than a smaller expensive block of ice. My anxiety is heightened because I have to perform this task in front of on-lookers and within a set period of time.
My product has to be recognizable (“what is it?” is my worst nightmare question). Even though I often yearned to do some artsy Picasso-esque sculpture or a detailed carving of a Euglena, I always end up with easily identified products such as a swan, a deer, an eagle, an owl, a muskrat, and a squirrel to name a few. My giant muskrat pushed the envelope a bit because folks insisted on calling it a beaver (I guess the idea of a giant muskrat is hard to take). I grew tired of pointing out the narrow tail and, with exaggerated pride, proudly declared it to be a whale just to see their reaction. This year I was threatening to do a piece called “ice blocks.” Up until the morning of the event I was frighteningly close to actually doing as I threatened. I had no idea what I was going to do. In fact, I was thinking of doing a whale up until a few minutes before carving commenced.
I ended up making a free-form gnarled tree trunk this year and I am o.k. with it (see above and here). The completed product benefited from a few days of deep chill temperatures and lasted through the weekend. Almost everyone knew what it was, although some wondered why it was. They asked why I didn’t carve the figure of an owl or “something” on one of the branches, but I told them that this was a tree for tree’s sake and nothing can improve it. The interplay of rough bark, twisted form, and stately ancient grandeur – I continued – was nature at its best. Receiving back blank stares after that Ann Arbor type reply, I then told them it was a whale and asked them if they liked it.
Perhaps because of my impassioned defense of trees, the Norway Maple directly across the walk began to weep tears of sweet joy. A cluster of long “sugar sickles” artfully cascaded from an old broken branch wound. The tip of each sickle held a liquid drop even though the temperature was well below freezing (kept in liquid form due to its high sugar content).
It was very early in the season for a sugar sickle, which is why I attribute my weakly executed ice tree for prompting the real tree to pour forth. Normally these tree sickles don’t form until late February when the maples start to call up their sap reserves and maple syrup enthusiasts start boring holes. I suppose it could have been the abnormally warm weather at the beginning of the week that prompted this outpouring, but the artist in me is resistant to that explanation (it is, after all far too logical). I have heard plenty of stories about January sap runs in the past. Let it be said that I did not NOTICE this sugar sickle until after I had completed my carving, however. “There go hoc, property hoc” I say with splintered Latin (with mercy buckets to those who recognize the intended phrase).
Seeing the wonderful icy lines of the Maple sickle did invoke a bit of internal artist envy. I crudely imitated nature with my chainsaw gyrations and thought myself lucky for achieving a stick creation of a stick. This maple tree, working with spit and the chill breath of Mother Nature, created a work of natural art that shamed my efforts. I then began to look around at other ice formations and realized the same thing. The interlocked fingers of puddle ice are endless variations on a crystalline theme. Their structure is suspended over the grass as a gravity-defying sculpture. I could go on, but I won’t.
My tree will not last long now that warmer temperatures have returned. All ice sculptures – both master and amateur works – will melt away. It was with some gratitude, then, that I noticed how nature is putting a few creative touches on my ice stump as it returns to a liquid state. The sun and wind are slowly turning it into a Picasso-esque piece. I am perfectly happy to let the master ice sculptor have her way.