Sculpture that melts in spring
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.