Chiseled to perfection

Updated: 2011-01-19 07:55

By Zhou Wenting (China Daily)

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 Chiseled to perfection

Kimmo Frosti, from Finland, works on his sculpture for this year's Harbin International Ice Sculpture Competition. Photos by Zhou Wenting / China Daily

With its freezing winter temperatures, Harbin in Northeast China is emerging as a standard setter in the world of ice sculptures. Zhou Wenting reports.

For sculptor Donald C. Watt, every block of ice is a mystery waiting to be discovered. "It's the process of creation that excites me," says the 59-year-old Canadian before carving into a huge slab with a buzz saw, sending thousands of ice flakes into the air.

He is one of 68 artists from across the globe braving freezing temperatures to take part in the 25th Harbin International Ice Sculpture Competition (Jan 6-8), one of the largest events of its kind.

The theme for Watt's sculpture is global warming and, once all the chiseling and sawing is done, features a polar bear swimming in a sea of tropical fish.

"It is an understatement to say that people should stop behavior that will have major consequences when the poles melt," says the professional set designer, making his third appearance at the competition in Northeast China's Heilongjiang province.

Designs by 2011's contestants, including the winning one by Latvians Karlis Ile and Mintauts Buskevics - who left with a first prize of 10,000 yuan ($1,500) - will be on display at Harbin Zhaolin Park until Feb 27.

Many artists travel the world to compete in ice sculpting events, with some on the road for up to four months at a time. Watt says he will have taken part in contests in four countries before he finally returns home to Whitehorse, capital of Canada's remote Yukon territory, in late February.

He says the blocks used in Harbin - two meters long and 0.7 meters thick - are the largest in the world, almost double the average size. The ice is taken from Songhua River, which freezes from late November until March, and supplied by the city's foreign and overseas Chinese affairs office.

Watt, who has been carving since he was 15, says he finds organizers through the Internet. "I show them my resume and website, which displays my work of the past two decades."

Many others rely on recommendations passed on by a social network of artists worldwide.

Malaysian John Yong first arrived in China six years ago after being invited by Chinese rivals at a competition in Hokkaido, Japan. "It's not about winning," says the 2008 Harbin silver medalist. "It's about exchanging ideas and skills and making new friends."

The 47-year-old, an artist chef at the five-star Crowne Plaza hotel in Kuala Lumpur, was hired in 1989 to carve intricate designs in fruit, vegetables and chocolate. He began making ice sculptures in the early 1990s and took part in his first competition in Hokkaido in 1994.

This year, Yong is partnered by Lithuania's Andrius Petkus, 34, whom he met at a contest in Russia.

"We were rivals at that time but we hit it off and decided to team up in Harbin," says Petkus, who sells his carvings at a store in Palanga. He designed the duo's sculpture, Let's Fly, which features J. M. Barries' legendary Peter Pan in full flight.

"It not only refers to the magical boy, but also everyone who longs for a fancy life," Petkus says. "I want to encourage those who are not happy, through my work."

To create Let's Fly, Yong and Petkus first clean the snow off the surface of the ice block with a shovel and then copy an outline of the design from a pencil sketch.

With temperatures dropping to as low as -20 C during the competition, the duo, like most competitors, are dressed in multiple layers of clothes and wear thick gloves. More important, however, are the various tools - no matter how much trouble they cause at airport security. Petkus says his suitcase, which was packed with about 20 sharp chisels and several large electric buzz saws, sets off almost every metal detector.

Despite the hassle, the Lithuanian artists says his "weapons" are vital. He lops off large chunks of ice with a buzz saw before he and Yong delicately chip away with shovels and chisels to make their sculpture.

To create the "bark" of a tree, Petkus uses a wave-shaped shovel, which leaves shallow traces on the "trunk". Meanwhile, his teammate uses an electric drill with a fine bit to slowly trace Peter Pan's hair.

"The one thing I have learned is the importance of using the right tools," says Yong, who explained that many artists make their own.

Watt agrees and says the tool case he has today would be unimaginable 25 years ago. "Ice will never change but tools decide the standard of our work and the development of the industry," he adds.

Although participants had to stay outdoors for about 10 hours a day during the competition, Petkus says he enjoyed every minute.

"I'm often asked why I don't do a warmer art but I really enjoy my work with ice. It's a hobby, not a job," he says. "I love my free life. I don't know where I will be tomorrow. Maybe I will fly to Malaysia and enjoy nice food with Yong."

Like their foreign peers, Chinese ice artists too are active in the international arena.

Zhang Dexiang, a 66-year-old from Harbin, a retired headmaster and art teacher at Huawen Middle School, from a famous "ice and snow family", has taken part in seven ice carving competitions abroad, including Finland, Russia, and South Korea. In 2010, when Zhang was in a competition in Belgium, foreign participants gave him a thumbs-up, shouting, "China, Harbin".

"Harbin stands for a high standard of ice carving in the global industry, so I feel proud to be a representative of the contestants from Harbin," Zhang says.

Although the reward at most competitions in the past was no more than a certificate and a trophy, with Zhang having to pay the round-trip airfare himself, he still enjoys "turning lifeless ice into vivid artwork" on various continents.

"Organizers in many countries such as Russia and Japan value Chinese contestants," says Jin Weijie, 30-year-old deputy director of the administrative office of Harbin ice lantern art expo center.

"Many Chinese artists with outstanding works in domestic competitions, who take part in competitions abroad, include college professors, technicians from jade plants and those specializing in urban sculpture," Jin adds.

Most artists are sponsored by their companies and associations, but some are supported by their townspeople, like Watt, an artist who designs settings for theaters and movies. His community has been supporting him with airfare and travel costs all over the world for the past 25 years.

Eight years ago, Watt began running a snow sculpture event in his hometown of Whitehorse, Canada, to bring the beautiful artworks back home. He has invited 11 teams from different countries for 2011, and plans to include Chinese artists in 2012.


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