Warm up to a cool hobby

Posted: Sunday, March 20, 2005


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  This woman is part of the comic Yard Work, the single-block ice sculpture created by Soldotna carvers John Iverson and Scott Hanson. In this, their second year at the international contest, the placed fifth in the realistic category. Photo by Doug Loshbaugh

Chuck Mazurek of Nikiski positions an ice block in preparation for the World Ice Championships in Fairbanks. The intact ice blocks weigh thousands of pounds, so placing them requires precise teamwork between artists and heavy equipment operators.

Photo by Doug Loshbaugh

Ice is a curious and contradictory thing. It is water and rock. It can be an obstacle or an opportunity. In the right hands, it can be a thing of extraordinary beauty.

This month in Fairbanks, the best of hands have been busy. The world's top ice artists gathered at one of Alaska's most unique sites, the Ice Park. They created a winter wonderland for families and competed in the World Ice Art Championships.

Six participating artists were from the Kenai Peninsula. Peninsula ice artists may hone their skills at the Peninsula Winter Games and Anchorage events, but they know that Fairbanks is where the big boys (and girls) play.

The central peninsula participant with the longest history at the event is Chuck Mazurek. The cabinet maker from Nikiski began competing four years ago. This year, his team won fourth place in the most challenging event, the multiblock classic.

Like other ice artists, he speaks in awe of the substance so many people take for granted. In the sun, it sparkles like crystal. At night, the park illumes it with colored lights so it glows with every hue of the rainbow. Ice and light interact in amazing ways.

"That first time you put a chisel through ice, it cuts, it sparkles," he said.

"It is fluid in more ways than one. All kinds of things happen."

The ice almost has a life of its own. Not a passive medium, it changes texture and shape over time, often forming striking patterns of cracks before it melts away. He likened the sculpting process to releasing fire from the ice.

One time someone asked Mazurek how he had managed the beautiful lines inside one of his pieces.

"I didn't do it," he said.

The ice used in the competition is cut from a manmade, on-site pond. It is so clear that the competition's organizers, members of the nonprofit Ice Alaska, sell it to other competitions and claim a person can read a newspaper through blocks several feet thick. They even have a special name for it: Arctic Diamond.

The Fairbanks competition dates back to 1988, and is a qualifier for the winter Olympics ice-art exhibition.


This place, called Imaginosity, won fourth in the abstract category in the World Ice Art Championships multiblock classic event this month in Fairbanks. The team of four artists who created it included Nikiski resident Chuck Mazurek.

Photo by Doug Loshbaugh

During the second week of March, Mazurek took a break from the multi-block competition. Stepping away from the glassy slabs of pale aqua ice, he talked modestly about his unusual hobby.

"I do it for fun," he said, taking pains to distinguish himself from the intensely competitive artists who fill every moment of the timed sculpture competition with frenzied activity in their quest for top honors.

Mazurek explained that his work in cabinetry and construction led him to ice art.

Originally from the iceless state of Florida, he moved to Nikiski in the 1970s. Since 1980 he has had his own business, Seana Cabinets. He works extensively with wood and does some designing.

"My work is kind of a craft. I consider myself a craftsman, not an artist," he said.

In recent years, he has worked on government construction projects all over Alaska, many in the Interior. Currently he is working on a new hospital at Fort Wainwright.

"I started working in Fairbanks a lot the past several years," he said. "It seemed I was here every winter. So I started coming to this.

"I first came to look at it. The next year, I came to volunteer."

Ice Alaska relies on an army of hundreds of volunteers to operate its Ice Park. Members were enthusiastic when they learned Mazurek was a skilled tradesman comfortable around tools. They put him right to work.

"Four hours later I was carving ice," he recalled. "They put a chisel in my hand."


This lazy husband kicking back in his wheelbarrow is inciting his wife's ire in this creation entitled, Yard Work.

Photo by Doug Loshbaugh

Using his construction expertise, he specializes in the practical aspects of building ice structures that will stay up. That is an art in itself, as some sculptors have learned to their peril when ambitious but top-heavy pieces have crashed to the ground. As if to drive home the point, this year the beautiful Japanese creation next to Mazurek's site collapsed when its final support was removed.

Would he ever sculpt ice at his Nikiski home?

"It's never been cold enough," he said.

Even if the relatively balmy coastal climate cooperated, the logistics are daunting. The biggest challenge would be obtaining and moving weighty ice blocks. Fairbanks is a perfect venue, he said, because it has enough water, intense cold and a cadre of workers with know-how to handle the equipment and logistics.

This year was the third time Mazurek worked on a multi-block sculpture. He also has done single-block sculptures twice. Last year, for the first time, he took the lead on a single-block piece. He and his partner, Fairbanksan Dan Baltrum, created an abstract fish based on a design by Mazurek's daughter, Cara, whom he calls the real artist in the family.

In the single-block classic, one or two artists tackle a slab of ice 8 by 5 by 3 feet. They have 60 hours to convert it into a thing of beauty.

In the multiblock classic, two to four people work as a team. They receive usually 10 to 12 blocks, each measuring about 6 by 4 by 3.3 feet. They have 5 1/2 days to do their magic, and some work round the clock.

This year, since he already was working in Fairbanks, Mazurek volunteered to help set up the park. He came after work and weekends during February to help build the awards stage.

Even before the competitions, he and other volunteers spent weeks preparing the site. There were ice blocks to move, shades to hang, electric lines to string and the Williams Alaska Kids Park to construct.

The kids' park is a frozen playground for all ages. Carvers from around the world work on it to warm up for the main event. It includes playhouses, animals to ride, huge slides, a skating rink, a maze and cutout faces to peek through. All are made of translucent ice and lit up by night with candy-colored embedded cold lighting. This year, its theme is "World on Ice."

Mazurek said the people involved make the entire experience special.

Working alongside the world's ice-sculpting stars is inspirational and educational. Participants this year came from Japan, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Russia, China, Korea, France, Norway, the Netherlands and Canada. In the past, the event has featured teams from such unlikely places as Brazil and Malaysia.

Participants include professional studio sculptors, art teachers, heavy-equipment operators, chefs, carpenters and college professors. A few work full-time as ice sculptors, traveling the world all winter to construct winter carnival sites and enter top competitions.


This woman is part of the comic Yard Work, the single-block ice sculpture created by Soldotna carvers John Iverson and Scott Hanson. In this, their second year at the international contest, the placed fifth in the realistic category.

Photo by Doug Loshbaugh

"It is fascinating. There are so many different backgrounds," Mazurek said.

He has been able to work with professionals such as Carl Eady, who has been winning ice-art awards for two decades.

"The thing you learn is technique," Mazurek said. "I should get better."

For the week of multiblock construction, Glacier Way, as the site of the big sculptures is called, was a beehive of activity.

During the first phase, heavy equipment rumbled about moving the massive blocks, which weighed more than two tons apiece. Teams set up scaffolding and traced designs onto the blocks.

Ice artists use a strange assortment of tools. They cut into blocks with chain saws, shape them with customized extra-wide drill bits and nail-studded blocks, then move on to detail work with chisels and sanders. Final texturing can involve anything from irons to blow torches. Even a bare hand can add polish.


Mazurek says that this part of Imaginosity which he carved himself, reminds him of the Northern Lights.

Photo by Doug Loshbaugh

Often teams build their statuary in pieces, then assemble them with "arctic glue," known to most as "water." The work leaves the artists powdered in snow, the "dust" of their labors.

"It is really easy to work," Mazurek said. "If you make a mistake, you glue it back together. You can't do that with wood."

The process is sensitive to weather conditions. If temperatures are too cold, artists get numb and their work brittle.

It doesn't take an ice specialist to predict what happens when the mercury climbs too high. This year, unusually mild weather in Fairbanks was a mixed blessing for the competitors. Mazurek said people were comfortable for long stretches outdoors, but keeping dry was a hassle.

The most competitive artists form their teams far in advance. For more casual participants, such as Mazurek, Ice Alaska can arrange teams.


Steve Curtiss and his brother created a sea turtle diorama called, Swimming with the Sea Turtles, for their debut in the Fairbanks International art competition.

Photo by Doug Loshbaugh

This year, he worked with Mark Chapin, a young Fairbanks designer, and Gitte Kolina, a Dane living in Maryland marking her first year at the event, under the direction of Anchorage carver Speareo Stephens. Their work, "Imaginosity," is an abstract depicting a fantasy garden of undulating forms.

The carving ended March 12. First-place honors in the realistic category went to an American and French team headed by Fairbanks artist Heather Brown, and in the abstract category to a U.S. team from Ohio. The artists' choice and governor's awards went to a realistic piece by a Chinese team.

The completed works form an amazing promenade for park guests. Huge shades of black cloth hang behind them to slow melting. By day, the sculptures glitter. By night, they shimmer and glow, their gleaming colors shifting as observers walk by. The park will remain open to the public through March 27.

Mazurek said the fourth-place finish is his best yet. But his main reward is enjoying the ice, the camaraderie, the beautiful sculptures and even the hard, cold labor.

"I would never work this hard for money," he said.

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