16 Jan Three Ice Carvers Share a Love of the Craft
For two days at Oregon WinterFest, artists dig deep into their work with chainsaws and chisels and grinders. The crowds admire the craft, ogle the finished piece and then it all melts away. Watching ice carvers create their masterpieces at WinterFest is always a crowd favorite. We talked to three of the artists lined up for this year’s fest to find out a little bit more about why and how they do it, where their inspiration lies and what some of their most memorable creations have been.
In early 2012, James Stugart was driving back from the WinterFest in Bend, fresh off of carving an ice sculpture, and thinking about what he wanted to do with his life. As he crested the icy pass over Mount Hood it hit him, hard—I think it might be ice carving. “And right then,” he recalls, “I slid off the road. I don’t know if something was trying to tell me to get out of it or into it.”
Stugart is an Alaskan who grew up in chilly Fairbanks watching Ice Alaska—the World Ice Art Championships—every year. He was first introduced to the art up close during a field trip in high school and took to it almost immediately. Artistic by nature, he won a gold medal at Ice Alaska at 19, making him one of the youngest carvers ever to do so.
With an art degree and some years under his belt, Stugart moved to Portland in 2010 and started carving in various festivals and competitions. At one in Lake Chelan, Washington, he met a Seattle sculptor who suggested that maybe Portland could use a business-savvy ice carver. Stugart followed that advice and launched ICEovation, which specializes in everything from handcrafted sculptures to corporate logos and drink luges that deliver cocktails in a festive way.
One of his favorite carvings to date involved 10 massive blocks of ice that he and a team of friends carved into a monolith inscribed with a John Donne poem surrounded by figures and buildings from around the world. The work garnered the People’s Choice Award at the 2016 Ice Alaska, an event that Sturgart plans to return to after this year’s WinterFest. “It’s one thing I look forward to doing in my life every year,” he says.
Imagine all of these carved out of ice: a chef holding a plate full of blasting fireworks; martini and sushi bars; a huge throne at WinterFest; an aquarium filled with live fish in between two ornate angel fish.
Those are just a few of the creations that Bill Ballard, an executive chef who has cooked for everyone from Carlos Santana to both Bush presidents, has conjured up over an ice carving career that has spanned more than 30 years. He got into the craft with a friend in 1985, in part to take his culinary artistry to the next level. “We both learned quickly and became enamored with the art,” he says. Though his creative side excels in textures and flavor profiles in food, Ballard also possesses an artistic sensibility that comes to life in his carvings. “My artistic side leans toward the abstract, and I am always drawn to different twists on basic shapes,” he says.
Over the years, Ballard’s talents, both culinary and carving, have taken him around the world. Both the medium and the process are intriguing to him. It’s the rare artist who works in ice, and Ballard has found that people truly enjoy watching a carver at work as much as they appreciate the final piece. And then there’s the fleeting nature of ice, as well. “I enjoy being given the gift to be able to create something out of a medium that won’t last forever,” he says. “Eventually the ice will melt—and hopefully there will be demand for another one.”
Paul Stark spent his early years in San Francisco, and then moved with his family to Oregon when he was 13. He had an early artistic bent, which led him to drawing. But it was the craft
pursued by his father and grandfather that would set him on his life path. “I think most of it comes from having a father and grandfather who worked in wood,” said Stark, who’s made a life for himself as a chainsaw wood carver for more than three decades. “They did mostly furniture, but they worked in wood. That’s where I got it.”
Today, Stark has an art school education and more than 30 years in the wood carving craft behind him. He’s traveled across the country wielding chainsaws to finesse massive rounds and trunks into all kinds of intricate wild animals and other creations. One of his latest: a 27-foot canoe filled with Native American and French trappers for the town of Lake George, New York.
He’s dabbled in ice a bit, largely at the prompting of the WinterFest folks, slicing and sawing blocks of ice into everything from walruses to polar bears. He says the medium is easier to carve, but at the same time more volatile and likely to break and fall apart if one’s not careful. “For the fest, I really like to do something that has a winter theme,” Stark says. “I usually wait until I get there, look at the block and then decide what I’m going to create.”