Ice is Cool: an interview with an ice sculptor

IMG_20130510_214541The main character of my novel The Age of Ice, Prince Alexander, is obsessed with ice. Among the many ice-related things that he does, is ice sculpture. Here is an interview with a real-life, present-day ice sculptor and entrepreneur Tatiana Viquez, who lives in the hot Southern CA, and has kindly agreed to talk with me about thrills and challenges of her art, about girl-power and power-tools, and why her company is called Troubled Ice.

Q: Why ice sculpting?

A:  I’m an art lover, always have been. I draw, paint, work with pastels, create chalk murals, glass blow; basically, I’ll try anything that lets me be creative. Which is pretty much how I became an ice sculptor. And honestly, once you see the tools you get to use as an ice sculptor, why wouldn’t you want to be one? Chainsaws, chisels, rotary tools. I love the power. Sculpting ice gives me a rush I don’t experience from dragging a pencil across a piece of paper.  I know that when I hold a power-tool with a hundred sharp teeth that could sever off any of my appendages, all my senses are heightened. And I get to wield this tool to make works of art that makes people question, is it glass?  Is it plastic?  No, it’s water, it’s ice, that’s the marvel!

Q: How did you become an ice sculptor?

A: My husband was working on a project for JPL that required him to do a 6 month stint at NASA in Houston, TX.  I tagged along since I just finished an RN program that taught me nothingIMG_20130510_214806 except that I didn’t want to be a nurse.  Living in a new city not knowing anyone and trying to figure out what to do with my life, I watched a lot of TV, like the History Channel’s How It’s Made. As I watched an episode about ice sculptures I told my husband I’d love to learn that. He encouraged me to find an instructor. I contacted three ice sculptors in the area and only one got back to me.  I helped him out for about week and then he asked me if I wanted to apprentice with him.  The apprenticeship was going to be for six months, and I wasn’t sure if I could do it since my husband was set to return to California in less than a month.  It took some mulling over, but I ended up staying in Houston while my husband returned to California. Six months turned into a little over a year and now I’m here, starting all over again.

Q:  Ice sculpting in Southern California…. Any particular challenges? Do you have to work in a refrigerated room?

A: Learning the craft in Houston taught me that if you can sculpt ice there, you can sculpt it anywhere. California doesn’t have the humidity that Texas has, and really ice’s biggest enemy is direct sunlight. Granted the heat does make the ice melt faster, but you need to have the ice at the same temperature as the environment in which you are carving in anyway, so the quicker it starts melting the sooner you get to start carving it.

I currently do all my carving in a covered garage.  I have a walk-in freezer, but besides extra storage and being able to have a large volume of ice on hand at all times, its biggest use would be for any detailed projects, such as sculpting faces.

IMG_20130510_214716Q:  What is your favorite ice to work with, and a favorite tool?

A: My favorite ice is to work with is, I guess, my own. I am a self-sustaining operation.  I have machines called Clinebells that freeze water from the bottom up.  All I have to do is fill them with water, place filters inside the tanks, and then let them freeze.  The filters (much like fish tank filters) push out the oxygen in the water as it freezes so that the ice gets that crystal clear look. Ice filled with oxygen, like the ice cubes you get from your freezer, crumbles when you try to carve it and doesn’t have the same beauty as clear ice.

My favorite tool to work with is my chainsaw, a Stihl MSE 140 with a 14″ bar.  It wasn’t until two years ago that I ever picked up a power tool, and I feel it should be mandatory that every girl powers up one like this at least once in her life.  The power and strength that you feel as you chop through an object to alter its state is amazing. Yes, you need to be careful and never disrespect your equipment because that’s when bad things happen, but if you are mindful with your power tools they are just like any other brush or pencil.

Q: If you could make anything out of ice, what would you make?

A: I would love to do an ice city.  People have done them before, but I would model mine after Alice and Wonderland.  I think the imagery of the story would transcend well into ice, and I would add so much color to the ice it would pop.  Color in ice?  Yes, it’s really quite simple and can be done several ways. For example, one can add a milk/paint solution to the water during the freezing process or cut out sections of ice and fill the holes with paint colored gelatin or sand.

Q: Are there different schools in ice sculpting? Technological innovations? What is the future of ice sculpture?

A: Trade or craft, no sculptor can survive without a chainsaw and some chisels. They are the foundation, but other than that, in the world of ice sculpting there is no clear way for artists to educate themselves. Every carver seems to have their own way by which they got into the field.  Some apprentice while others attend a culinary program or ice sculpting program, and then there are those who are self-taught. Within the community there appears to be no “right” way to go about becoming a carver, the only thing that seems to really matter is the evaluation you receive from your peers.

The technological innovation that has made the deepest impression on ice sculpting thus far is the IMG_20130510_214337CNC machine. A CNC (computer numerical control) machine uses a CAD program to cut out large blocks of ice into a two-dimensional sculpture. Purists argue that once you surrender to this form of carving you are no longer an ice sculptor and you are betraying the art form. The owners of these machines reply that they are keeping up with the time, improving their business, cutting down labor costs, creating precise work that they don’t believe can be matched by human hands.  At this moment in time I adhere to doing everything with my own hands. I am still honing my craft and I know at times my pieces are slightly flawed, but isn’t that the beauty of hand-made art, its tiny imperfections?

According to NICA (National Ice Carving Association) there are currently 219 ice sculptors in the world. This list is slightly inaccurate due to the fact that not all ice sculptors join this association, such as myself.  But even if the list is off by just 50, that is still too few.  Ice sculpting is a beautiful art form that is thought to date back as far as 600 BC, but with such a small community attempting to carry on the tradition and with the advancement of technology that is leading many artists to leave the carving tools behind, I fear that the numbers of ice sculptors will continue to dwindle.

Despite its beauty, the practice of ice art is hard and abusive. The heavy lifting, the varying temperatures, the effects that rotary tools can have on the body all limit the amount of time any carver can pursue the career. And what about women in ice sculpting?  I do not know exactly how many female carvers are out there, but I am aware that as of now I am the only active one in California as the other woman is preparing to retire to start a family!

Q:  The name of your business, Troubled Ice, is intriguing. Is there a story behind it?

A: I wanted the name of my company to be edgy, and have my name in it without actually having my name in it. So my husband and I got to brainstorming.

I began thinking about the nickname my husband had for me since we met in high school, troublemaker.  It seemed perfect, like slashing ice with a chainsaw, causing a ruckus:  Troublemaker Ice. My husband liked it, but thought it was a little too long so he offered Troubled Ice.  At first I didn’t get it.  Why would I want people to think that my ice has issues? Then I gave it a thought and realized that my journey to where I am now was pretty troubled. So the name stuck. From there, the logo fell into place.  A cat — to imply that this is a woman-owned business. And that it’s a bad-ass cat with two crossed chainsaws, means there is an extra sharp edge to it. I hope one day everybody will know the company by the logo.

Visit Tatiana’s website/