We met up with John, in the midst of preparations for The Loop Ice Carnival, to see what it's like to always be cold as ice.
What led you to a career in carving ice?
I was always interested in ice carving, and I actually went into the culinary field to learn more. Unfortunately, I found out there wasn't much ice training, and I didn't get to do as much carving as I thought I would. So, I worked in the culinary field for a while, carving lots of veggies, until I finally pushed my way into ice carving at Ice Visions.
It sounds like you jumped right into ice carving. What kind of training was involved?
When I started at Ice Visions, I spent six months as a gopher following David [Van Camp], watching, learning and doing a little carving here and there. Most pieces I worked on were kept, but some definitely got tossed. When you're carving, the chainsaw is used for about 60 to 70 percent of all pieces. After the chainsaw, I go in with an assortment of chisels and rotary tools to do the detail work. It took about six months to get comfortable with the chainsaw, and then I was off and carving on my own.
If you're an ice carver, you must really like the cold. Are colder temps essential for carving?
Growing up in the heat of Florida, I definitely like the cold better than being too hot! In the shop where I carve, the temperature is about 60 degrees. You can carve a piece for about three to four hours in that temperature range, but I typically carve a piece in about two hours. Sometimes there is work that I have to do in the freezer, but I really don't like working in the freezer. Plus, the colder the temperatures are in your workspace, the more layers and gloves you need, which makes it more difficult to work.
What is the typical day in the life of an ice carver?
On a typical day, I'll check the hanging clipboard to see the sheets for the upcoming jobs. I'll thumb through the sheets to see if there is something that interests me, find some artwork to match the request, draw my own design, get approval from the client and start carving my block.
When you say "block of ice," what exactly are we talking about?
Well, a block of ice is 40 inches tall, 20 inches wide and 10 inches deep. So, it's about 4 feet tall. Sculptures can be carved from one block or several blocks fused together.
How much ice do you carve in a week?
On average, I carve about 20 sculptures a week. In December, we will carve 30 to 40 sculptures a week for holiday parties, private parties, businesses, retirement homes, country clubs, etc. The summer months are pretty slow.
What are preparations like for The Loop Ice Carnival?
We will have about 50 blocks of ice to carve for The Loop. There will be 25 blocks carved with the chainsaw and chisels. If we have a business logo or something of that nature, it is typically done on our machine in the freezer. So, there will be another 25 that we will set up and carve on the machine with some additional detail work added later. We will have slides that are built on-site. I'll be doing some pretty unique pieces these year, including a Bill Murray piece and some dragons, yielding a lot of precise detail work that is elaborate and time consuming, with few straight cuts. We'll start set-up at The Loop around 7 a.m. We have a couple of 4-block displays to do on-site, as well as the slides. Then, I'll do some live demos in front of Fitz's. All-in-all there will be about 60 blocks of ice on the streets, and 25 of those will be pretty detailed pieces.
Do you have a favorite subject that you like to carve?
Oh, gosh, I have carved thousands of pieces over the years. I enjoy figures and faces; they are more difficult pieces to carve and need to be done precisely. Cartoon characters and animals are also fun. Every year, I get better and understand the ice more.
What is the biggest and most memorable piece you have ever created?
The biggest block of ice I have ever carved was about 20 blocks of ice. That display was the sleigh and reindeer for Anheuser-Busch Brewery. My most memorable piece of ice was six or seven years ago at the St. Charles Fete de Glace competition. We carved a bear fighting a stallion in commemoration of the Super Bowl. The stallion was standing 6 feet in the air on its hind legs. There was this arch of ice that was just hanging there. It was pretty cool. Unfortunately, we lost to a group of penguins. Apparently, we need to have the kids' vote to win. We're learning!
How do you prepare for a competition like Fete de Glace?
This is my 10th year competing. You can carve whatever you want to carve. I'll make a few sketches, but I typically decide the day of the event what I am going to carve based on the weather. You can do more detailed work when it is 32 degrees outside than when it is 50 degrees.
How long have you been taking part in ice carving competitions and have you ever won?
I've been competing for almost 10 years. Off the top of my head, at the Fete de Glace in St. Charles, I took first place in the single block master division in 2014; first place in the single block master division and first place in the five block team event in 2013, with Jeff Helms as my partner; third place in the single block master division in 2012; first place in the single block master division in 2008; and first place in the five block team event in 2005, with Dave VanCamp as my partner. I've also got a first place from the Steinberg Winter Classic Ice Carving competition in 2013, and I hope to do the same this year. In 2013, at the NRA Food Show in Chicago, I made it to the semifinals, essentially taking third place overall. It was a winner-take-all competition with a $2,500 purse.
What happens to the ice after these ice events are over?
Right now, in the wintertime, the ice needs to be broken down because it would take forever to melt. At the Fete de Glace, they bulldoze it when the event is over. It's a little sad to watch it go, but it's part of the wonder of the work.
Anything else you'd like to share about life as an ice carver?
It's lots of fun if you can stand the cold!
See top local ice carvers compete at the upcoming Fete de Glace in St. Charles Saturday, Jan. 30.