FAIRBANKS, ALASKA — In this land of snowmobiles and permafrost, Fairbanks endures at least seven months of merciless winter. But its residents have discovered the perfect antidote to the city's annual deep freeze.
To help breathe life and color into the city's monochromatic, snow-laden landscape, an international contingent of about 110 ice sculptors arrives every March from all over - Russia, Poland, Hungary, Japan, France, Finland, the Czech Republic, Canada, and Mexico, among others. The occasion is the largest ice sculpting competition in the world, the World Ice Art Championships.
"Ice is a medium that artists from all over the world can use to sculpt magical creations," says Dick Brickley, chairman of Ice Alaska, the all-volunteer organization that presents the World Ice Art Championships.
Spectators can watch the evolution of those creations during sculpting competitions held in Fairbanks's Ice Park.
Within an 11-day period, massive blue cubes of ice stacked in seemingly random order are carved into a variety of figures - a towering centaur, giant spider and web, Mayan pyramid - or into some abstract interpretation of the vortex of life.
The quality of the ice itself is one of the main draws for the sculptors, who range from hotel chefs to professional artists. Fairbanks' sediment-free, clear-blue ice has earned the name "Arctic diamond." In 1996, Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles even went so far as to dub Fairbanks the "Ice Capital of the World."
"In some other places in the Lower 48, they sculpt with commercial ice, smaller blocks, meaning you have to piece blocks together," says Anita Tabor, a full-time artist who moved from Arkansas to Fairbanks almost 20 years ago, and participates in the World Ice Art Championships every year. "Here the blocks are much larger, so there are no seams in the ice.
"Working with the transparent ice is so beautiful; it's a clean feeling," Ms. Tabor says.
Although Fairbanks has hosted the World Ice Art Championships since 1990, the history of ice sculpting in the region dates to 1934, when two local women inspired the town to present the first Fairbanks Winter Carnival. There, elaborate ice thrones were constructed to stage the crowning of the carnival queen and king.
Ice sculpting was resurrected in Fairbanks in the late 1980s, thanks in part to the Chinese. Inspired by the world-renowned Ice Sculpture Festival in Harbin, China, the Greater Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce invited sculptors from China to present an ice exhibition to show what could be done.
At first, the Fairbanks chamber was dubious about the quality of ice in its own borders and ordered ice from Seattle. But the Chinese said the Fairbanks ice was spectacular.
Now, where prospectors once turned to Fairbanks for its stashes of gold, the city is actually mined for its ice, and has turned its natural reserves into a commodity. Fairbanks exports ice to Anchorage for its ice-sculpting event prior to the Iditarod sled dog race each year. The city also shipped ice to Albertville, France, for the 1992 Winter Olympics.
Today, the World Ice Art festival is one of the main tourist attractions in Fairbanks during winter, drawing some 20,000 spectators per year.
For each ice-art competition, harvesters use forklifts to extract more than 1,500 blocks (more than 6 million pounds) of crystal-blue ice from O'Grady Pond, where the ice can freeze more than four feet thick.
O'Grady Pond is adjacent to Ice Park, which is especially convenient since each ice block used in the competition can weigh from 3,000 to 7,500 pounds.
Once the harvesters have completed their haul, the sculptors can begin their art. For the single-block classic competition, each sculpting team - usually two artists armed with chain saws, ice chippers, blades, ice picks, and other assorted sculpting tools - takes on one block of ice, which measures about 5 feet by 8 feet by 3 feet.
The rules are strict - it can't take longer than 2-1/2 days to complete.
For the multiblock classic, each team of four members receives 12 blocks of ice, each about 4 feet by 4 feet by 3 feet in size, and has 5-1/2 days to work.
"If you do both competitions, that's 44,000 pounds of ice you're handling," says Mimi Chapin of Ice Alaska, which oversees the event.
"The biggest challenge is that it's very physical," Tabor says. "Many people stay up all night working, depending on the complexity of the design. We're also dealing with elements of weather, having to keep tools sharp and running. Maybe the chain breaks on the chain saw, and you have to get it fixed."
Sculptors also face average temperatures during the competition from 15 to minus 5 degrees F. But that's part of the attraction for some. "I love being outdoors in winter, in the dark months. The ice festival is a way of getting me outside," Tabor says.
Teams have different approaches. According to Ms. Chapin, the Japanese team arrives with nearly everything already choreographed. "They've planned every cut of the chain saw, so there are no decisions on the spot. Other teams, like mine last year, didn't decide to sculpt together until the evening they were drawing lots for sites. Every day, we basically had to undo what we did the day before."
For the most part, the sculptors return each year just because they enjoy working with the medium. "When I moved back here in 1990, the last thing on my mind was to become an ice sculptor," says Steve Brice, a Fairbanks native whose previous experience had mainly been carving stone, bronze, and other materials.
But once Mr. Brice tried ice sculpting, he slowly began to devote more time to that. He has since sculpted ice all over the world and represented Fairbanks twice at ice-carving demonstrations at the Olympics.
He has also received numerous medals at the Fairbanks competition, and sculpted one of the most memorable World Ice Art championship works to date - "the Joust" - which combined an artistic concept and such realistic detail that Chapin says it made you feel as though the characters were about to start fighting.
When the sculptures are complete, a lighting crew, with some input from the artists, decides how each work should be lighted. At night, the translucent ice absorbs the reds, greens, yellows, and blues, adding passion to each piece.
Winners are chosen in two categories - realistic and abstract - by a jury headed by local artists.
Amateurs can also compete in the four-day Fairbanks Open during the week of the Multi-Block Classic. Each team of no more than two sculptors is given a 2,700-pound block of ice and a required safety course.
While the adults wield mighty machines to tame thick chunks of ice, children at Ice Park enter a fantasy world in a section called the Williams Alaska Kids Park. Built by sculptors who come to Fairbanks a few weeks early and local artists practicing their technique, the Kids Park takes up 2-1/2 city blocks and uses more pounds of ice than the single- and multiblock competitions combined.
Kids wander through ice mazes, turn each other in small ice spinners, explore a full-size ice cabin, ride the ice-go-round, and careen down one of many ice slides in the park.
The Fairbanks Ice Museum attempts to capture a taste of the World Ice Art Championships year-round. Located in the historic Lacey Street Theater in Fairbanks, the Ice Museum features the Ice Showcase, an 8,000-cubic foot walk-in display case that maintains a constant temperature of 20 degrees. There, local artists such as Steve Brice and Anita Tabor create anything from a life-size moose or musk ox to a fish scene.
This year the Ice Museum is adding more displays, including a 20-below degree room, where visitors can briefly feel a blast of Fairbanks in a full-fledged winter month like January, when the average temperature is 19 below.
The Ice Museum is open from May to September. Once the season is over, the sculptures melt into a drain installed in each display case.
"The ice sculptures stay as long as the weather holds out and then they go back to the earth," says Tabor. "It's very ephemeral art. You put all that energy and work into it and you know it will go away."
• The Ice Museum, located at 500 Second Avenue in Fairbanks, is open seven days a week, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m, from May 15 to Sept. 15. For more information, call (907) 451-8222.