Blocks of Ice, Hearts of Warmth

BOSTON, the midnight hour. I am returning to my apartment on the other side of town after a long evening of writing. Under an ebony sky, I step into the street in slow automatic, buried in layer upon layer of wool. Tonight the temperature has dropped below freezing; bitter winds are stinging my face. I walk into the wind for a few blocks, and then sink into the urban catacomb. The blinding lights, the deafening screeches, and the barking intercom voices do not unfasten me. Tonight, this gritty lining enc loses me like a familiar friend - for I am no longer cold.

After a short wait, I am transported in a motorized capsule that stops and goes and stops again. I give in to the jerking motions on board. Then I step off the capsule and step onto a gliding stairway that elevates me to heavy swinging doors. In expectation of the frozen darkness, I feel my body tighten. I know I want out - but I don't want cold. Leaning into the door, I push, planting my feet into familiar turf.

But as I look up, I notice that the oh-so-familiar empty brick arena has been transformed into a spectacle of floodlights and a bustle of shadowy human forms. These glaring lights stare into me, and yet this luminous vision is melting my resistance to the outdoors. As I move ahead, signs of human life are piercing into the frozen darkness - a strident whine from a chain saw, a barking medley of voices, the blare of a Top 40 hit, rhythmic scraping. I continue to uncoil.

Within moments I stand before a live theater performance, but I cannot articulate its form. A theater of dance? A light show, perhaps? Against this black velvet sky, my eyes are engaged with light sashaying in extraordinary brilliance off 10 or more ice monoliths. These forms tower over me, stretching into the star-studded sky. They transport me to a faraway land that never grows green, that stays forever white. My eyes drift down to a drooping yellow tape that heeds "caution" ad nauseam.

I feel cold again, and turn to the creators of this kingdom of ice. They are dressed for the mountains. Some are plump in bright-colored ski suits - turquoise, purple, yellow. Others dress leaner and lighter, in snowflake-patterned wool sweaters and worn jeans.

A pair of carvers work on each monolith, laced in steady movement and wordless dialogue. Physical prowess fills this frozen air to the nth degree. I am riveted by the different stages of their creative work: unloading ice blocks with a forklift off a rumbling refrigerator truck; steadily stacking and positioning blocks into overhead walls and clusters; scratching sketches on the sides of blocks; gently shaving off edges with three-foot-long chisels.

I AM particularly pulled to these sculptor's gloved hands, stirred by the breadth of their abilities: the same hands that softly whittle away corners also pull, with delicate iron tongs, 300-pound ice blocks. A few feet away is a long work table that holds a beautiful row of hand-hammered ice-sculpting tools. Their wooden handles are intricately carved in geometric patterns. If Goliath ever had a manicure, I suspect he used tools like these.

I walk over to examine an abandoned ice block. Before tonight, ice was something I avoided on sidewalks or consumed in tall glasses of Coca Cola and cardboard cups of root beer Slurpee. But tonight, I stand next to an ice cube that makes me feel Lilliputian. It stands three feet tall. It is new and otherworldly; mysterious and frolicky. Its expansive come-hither surfaces show off a stunning play of light that plunges deeply. I want to jump in and trace these passages of light. I do - again, and again, an d again.

For the next few minutes, I watch an image of a small child take form from one of these blocks. I am impressed by how easily the edges shave off. The image and sound of this smooth rythmic motion is beginning to resonate in me.

The whining chain saw starts up again. My eyes scan the scene, and I spot a sculptor dressed in royal blue, bracing the chain saw. He has planted the clunky machine against his chest. In moments, the jagged-metal tongue pierces into the glassy surface, spitting out a steady stream of white-glowing chips. A chunk of ice crashes to the floor.

Next to this giant ice crystal that has been clawed, I observe an ice-sculpting technique that reminds me of clay: After a carver roughs up and affixes adjoining sides of two blocks with a chisel, he stirs up a bucket of ice chips and water. With his bare hands, he scoops up handfuls and presses it into the seam.

Tonight, the art space that I have walked into has little to do with obscure and weighted-down theory. I am engaged in a dialogue here, an open arena of raw energy. Unleashed. Swirling. Soaring. I am privy to an exclusive moment, observing the mystery of how humans develop and shape a form; how humans lose themselves in the process of creation. These artists have unveiled their cloak of art-making. They hide nothing from me.

In this openness, I am surprised there is no breathing room for my usual repertoire of gallery-museum art questions, such as, "Who are these artists? What were their influences? When was this object, painting, or drawing created?"

Walking into this circle of light spotlighting the phenomenon of creation has surfaced new questions in me.

Tonight I ask, "How does art happen?" And "what is this business of creation about?" These new questions feel far more lively and human; I know they are pointing toward something profound that has to do with me.

As I watch these carvers lost in their world of art-making, I feel bridged to them. The sounds they are making as they invent new forms - the scraping, the shaving - are awakening my desire to create.

How cold the contained spaces of galleries and museums feel in contrast to this open arena. At times, how difficult I find it to rise above the weight of commercialism filling these contained spaces. Under the density of art as business, objects created by human hands and heart often seem suffocated. Under the gloss of these commercial spaces, I am stretched to find signs of human emotion and feeling.

These ice sculptors are defying art as business, art as product, art as object to be contained and labeled with a dollar value. Aside from a photo, there is nothing that can be sold or packaged here.

This evening I embrace ice-sculpting as a metaphor for the inevitable cycle of life; the ebb and flow that is forever testing and pushing me into uncomfortable new forms. Over the next few evenings, I will witness these ice monoliths slowly shrinking away and will be reminded of an inevitable law of renewal, rebirth.

I walk home to my apartment with numb toes and feet, stirred by questions about the creative process in the art world, and the significance of the object being created. How my mind swirls with this notion of artists losing themselves in a medium that is ephemeral. Their performance has humbled me. All will disappear in less than a few days. But lost? What is really lost?

I sink into this question as I reach my doorstep, and my mind fills with towering crystal sea horses, saber-tooth tigers, and sumo wrestlers - forms that emerged tonight, under the floodlights of creation.

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