Ice-sculpting experts carve lucrative niche in growing business

June 25, 2007

The temperature outside hovers around 90 degrees, but Jose Hernandez is wearing gloves as he makes his way through a 300-pound block of frozen water.

He handles his chain saw with practiced ease, as snowy dust covers him.

Hernandez is part of a small-but-growing group of chisel-wielding artists who are only too happy to see their masterpieces disappear. Once reserved for upper-crust weddings, ice sculptures--and their creators--have gone mainstream, finding their way to business meetings, personal parties and hotel receptions nationwide.

Of the 500 U.S. professional sculptors who design the icy artwork, 10 practice their craft in Indiana--including two who have central Indiana businesses and one who teaches at Indiana Business College's Chef's Academy downtown.

In fact, IBC chef Jeff Bane includes a three-day ice sculpting lesson as part of his curriculum. The class begins with a demonstration and ends with the students learning techniques and safety.

Bane, 32, sells a couple of dozen sculptures a year in Indianapolis and Fort Wayne under the name Summit City Ice Designs. Most of Bane's carvings are done for competitions and teaching, though.

That's fine with Hernandez, 48, who owns one of the two local sculpting businesses.

"I respect who comes around, but ... more people can hurt my business," he said. "If there are more, prices are dropped because of the competition."

He and Yorktown competitor Stephan Koch carve more than 700 ice sculptures a year--earning more than $250,000 between them.

Life of a sculptor

Koch, 36, appreciates the artistic element of his work. Light refracts through the frozen water, he said, changing its appearance over time.

"The ice changes and becomes clearer as the outer frost melts away," said Koch, owner of Indiana Ice Studio Inc. "Some of the features soften, but this is the magic of ice sculptures."

Koch began his career as a chef and carved wood in his free time, but in 2000 decided to specialize in ice sculpting to spend more time with his family. As a chef, Koch said, he worked until 10 p.m. or later, but as an ice carver he can set his own hours.

He makes about 200 sculptures a year that range from $350 to $3,000. His yearly revenue is about $90,000. Koch also competes to improve his skills.

Hernandez, of Indianapolis-based Jose and Sons Ice Sculptors, is his biggest competitor.

As a boy in Mexico, Hernandez molded clay. When he came to the United States, he worked in a kitchen where he eventually began helping a chef carve ice. One day, Hernandez did it himself.

He has been a professional sculptor for 25 years and now works with his wife, Kathleen, their two sons and a few others, all of whom he taught to carve. Given the year-round demand, his wife said, they can hardly relax and take vacations.

"We do this because nobody else likes to," said Kathleen, 46. "We also love art and have patience. Every day is different.

"You also just have to like labor; it's not a sit-down job and that's what we like. We like the comments and [knowing] what can make us better."

Jose and Sons makes at least 500 sculptures a year that range from $325 to $5,000. Hernandez would not disclose his yearly revenue but it figures to be at least $162,500.

His business also rents out chocolate fountains and carves almost anything edible, including cheese, fruit and vegetables.

Scarcity of sculptors

Almost all ice sculptors began as chefs, and the rest were probably landscapers or artists, Koch said. Anybody can learn to carve ice, but taking sculpting classes or attending art school can help shape skills, he said.

"Indiana has about 10 professional ice carvers, but is a dead zone compared with the rest of the Midwest," Koch said. "Detroit alone had 19 in the phone book and that doesn't include who's not listed. I'm not sure why that is, but I think that's going to change."

The state's sculptors all are members of the Illinois-based National Ice Carving Association, said Executive Director Alice Connelly. Founded in 1987, the association promotes the art, hosting seminars, competitions and festivals.

As sculptures become more popular, the number of carvers also is increasing, she said. The association had 25 members when it was founded, compared to its 500 members now.

"More and more corporations use sculptures for their functions and sculptors become more creative in what can be done with ice," she said. "Now you can go to corporate parties with ice sculptures on every table instead of [seeing] flowers."

Indiana's low numbers might be because its relatively small cities can't support multiple sculptors, said Bane, treasurer of NICA's Indiana chapter.

Still, the state is surrounded by sculpting hotbeds.

"The NICA headquarters is in Chicago, Michigan is a huge place where ice carvers come from, and there's a very strong chapter in Ohio," Bane said. "The Midwest is where a lot of the national stuff is happening for ice sculptors as a whole."

Sculpture secrets

A visit to Hernandez's near-south-side garage offers a glimpse into the making of a sculpture: Purified water is poured into plastic-lined machines to produce 300-pound blocks. These 40-by-10-by-20-inch blocks can last from eight to 24 hours. The bigger the sculpture and the more intricate the detail, the longer the ice will last.

Hernandez carves on an air-conditioned dock or in his 10-degree-below-zero freezers, depending on the sculpture size.

A level is used to make sure the ice is even while chain saws, chisels and grinders are used for sculpting. Computers also are used to program drills to sculpt with better accuracy and handheld drill bits are used to make finer details.

Simple sculptures can take 45 minutes to create, while more complex ones can take days.

Almost anything can be made, from bowls to ice bars, keg coolers to motorcycles. Large sculptures that require multiple blocks are made by using shaved ice, known as "snow glue," to join the pieces.

Koch said he draws the image on paper first, then designs a template. Finished sculptures are stored in a freezer until they're packed and delivered. Before they begin carving, both Koch and Hernandez let the ice acclimate to the room's temperature so it does not break.

"You can take it pretty thin, but carving ice for a buffet is different than for a competition," Koch said.

Going to use

Some wedding and event planners understand ice sculptures can make a lasting impact for any occasion.

"I've used them for years and I had one at my wedding," said Monica Richard, 31, director of sales at Wolfgang Puck Catering in the Indianapolis Museum of Art. "I wanted to give others the idea and I think you can do something truly iconic for your wedding and really make a statement that people won't forget. It's a huge impact for not a lot of money."

For a Mother's Day wedding this year, Hernandez made an ice bar featuring two palm trees with monkeys on top and the couple's monogram, said Tonya Shadoan, 34, owner of Indianapolis-based Circle City Planners. Drinks came out of each tree and poured into martini glasses.

"For a while, two swans kissing and making a heart shape was popular, but now it's more of centerpieces and bars," she said. "Ice is back."

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