Cool! Ice sculptors show off talents at winter games

Posted: Monday, February 05, 2001

Ice clinking in a tall glass is the perfect match for a hot summer day. Chunks of ice, sculpted into art, also were the perfect match for the Peninsula Winter Games, thanks to some creative thinking and a lot of artistic talent.

"If we didn't have anything else besides ice sculpting, people would come out and see this," said Faron Owen, executive director of Kenai Peninsula Tourism Marketing Council, organizer of the winter games.

Owen credited Jerry Near and Norm Blakeley for coming up with the idea.

"They kind of got a wild hair and said, 'Boy we'd like to see some ice sculpting,'" Owen said. "Jerry called a guy he knew and got it worked out."

Saturday, Near and Owen praised the volunteer effort that made the event possible. Members of Rotary Club cut and removed 25 tons of ice out of a gravel pit belonging to Foster Construction.

Lyndon Transport hauled the 3-foot-by-6-foot-by-2-foot blocks of ice to the parking lot in front of Soldotna Sports Center. Don Moffis donated the use of boom truck to move the ice into location. His father Shug Moffis ran the truck.

The Riverside House and marketing council provided housing and food for the artists -- Leo Vait of Homer, Sperrio Stevens of Eagle River, and Terry Thomasik, Gary Keeton and Les Babcock, all of Anchorage.

Vait said he has been a sculptor all his life.

"I usually work in wood" he said.

But midwinter blahs got him interested in snow sculpting about six years ago.

Nodding to the other ice artists, Vait said, "I've worked with all of these guys either on the same or opposing teams."

Keeton said ice sculptors form a small group.

"You always run into the same people," he said.

Which is no small thing, considering Keeton and his sculpting partner, Babcock, have competed in Anchorage, Fairbanks, Michigan, Wisconsin, and the national snow sculpting competition in New York.

Keeton and Babcock recently returned from the Squaw Valley Celebrity Sports Challenge, in Squaw Valley, Calif., where they carved an 8-foot bar from which hot beverages were served. While there, they also did three smaller carvings -- a skier, a kayaker and a 4-foot long replica of an Alaska Airlines 737. Alaska Airlines was one of the sponsors of the event and sought out Keeton and Babcock's expertise.

Fourteen years ago, the two were working in the aircraft repair business together.

"We were were looking for something to do for the Fur Rendezvous and we got into snow sculpting," Babcock said.

Since then, they have literally carved out their niche. A portfolio of projects they have completed illustrates their expertise and makes it clear why the duo has won the state championship six times.

"Last year we went to the international competition in Fairbanks and took fifth place," Babcock said. "That's pretty tough competition."

Tough, indeed. The World Ice Art Championships, sponsored by Ice Alaska Inc., began in 1989. In 2000, it drew sculptors from Canada, China, Europe, Japan, Russia and all across the United States, including Alaska, Texas, Ohio, Montana and California.

Ice sculpting calls for an interesting array of tools, like the well-used cross-cut saw belonging to Near and a supply of chain saws, chisels, routers and grinders.

Trying their hand at sculpting were local high school students Ivy Weeks and Blake Schweigert, seniors at Soldotna High School, and Ellina Schendera, a Skyview exchange student from Magadan, in the Soviet Far East. Daren Creary, a fourth-year student at Kenai Peninsula College, signed up to help with the project, transforming ice into salmon with the help of a chisel.

The assignment for the weekend artists was to create an 18-foot-long, 6-foot-high school of salmon, as well as a Peninsula Winter Games sign.

"It's just a demonstration this year," Owen said. "But we would love to grow this thing into a major competition next year. We'd like to pull off something bigger than the Fairbanks event."

While Owen dreamed of the future, Keeton focused on the ice in front of him and the short-lived project at hand.

"The thing about ice," he said, "is that it doesn't last long enough for people to make fun of what you carve."

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