Jenny Frank, Ice Sculpting Novice? (and other thoughts on making)

This was such an exciting opportunity that I happened across. I'm not sure if I can call myself an ice sculptor yet, but now I definitely know the basics. 

I've been fascinated by ice sculpture since I was a little kid. I remember going to the Chicago Botanic Garden every year around christmas and seeing people carving ice into plants and animals. Its so cool how they can pull something out of a big block, and with such speed. I talked my dad into getting this big (weird) swan ice mold at one point. You just filled it up with water, froze it, and then tried to pull the swan out of the silicone mold without breaking its neck (very tricky). Although that didn't involve any power tools, I think it still counts as my first foray into the world of ice.

A few months ago, I met James from ICEovation at an event at my job. He was busy making sponsor logos out of ice. We got to talking and I had a million questions. James is from Alaska, a true ice expert. He grew up in the town that hosts the World Ice Carving Championships every year, that is how he got into it. Now he makes ice sculptures for events and weddings here in Portland. (He recently made this crazy Predator drink luge for The Tannery's Anniversary party, below). After many emails back and forth about ice, he agreed to let me help him out with an ice project.

Guess who just showed up to the party...

A photo posted by The Tannery (@thetannerybar) on

I was expecting to watch and help out where I could, but he threw me right into the deep end. He had to make 3 vases for another event at my job, and wanted me to design and make one completely on my own, with his guidance in all technical aspects. I had free reign over the aesthetic, which turned out to be more of a challenge than I thought it would be. Without previous ice experience, it was hard to imagine what was even possible. I have also done a lot of glass blowing, another thing I found interest in as a child (a pattern?), and my mind just kept going back to that. Although totally opposite in temperature, both are natural elements that don't really want to go into the forms you want them to be. Both being clear didn't help me get away from that thought.  

Perhaps less known about me now that I am fully immersed in the design world - I went to art school, and my degree is in fine art. My program was focused on the conceptual side of art and art theory and criticism way more than on the technical side of making. I also minored in philosophy. That has given me really great problem solving skills as well as conceptualizing abilities. I love modern and contemporary art and super minimal stuff, because its all about the concept behind it. I think my overall aesthetic in everything I make comes directly from that, always minimal and conceptual. I was so worried it wouldn't translate to ice. I struggled with feeling like I wanted to make a really impressive ice vase but also wanting to make something that felt like it was coming from me. 

 my glass vase

my glass vase

After discussing concept and the difficulty of different shapes and ideas with James, I chose to mimic a glass vase that I previously made. When I made that, everyone kept saying they thought it was a pitcher. This time, with a florist filling the ice vase with flowers, no one would be confused that it was a vase. 

 The first step

The first step

We started out with a 300lb. block of ice. The first tool I used was the chainsaw, pretty exciting. With it, I cut out the general shape. From there we used chisels to round out all the curves. This is where my glass brain really got in my way. In glass you're constantly rotating the piece, so being radially symmetric is pretty standard. With that process, you think of the shape as a whole, then go to individual spots or sides that you want to be different. I imagine it's the same in pottery when using a wheel. This was like looking at sculpting from the completely opposite direction. You have to shape just one side, then think of how that fits into the piece as a whole. Thankfully, James was there to explain it to me in at least eight different ways and I got it all rounded out.

 After some chiseling

After some chiseling

After that, we sanded it smooth with an electric sander. At this point, it was a giant round pointy thing. Even though I always tend towards minimalism, I thought it might be too plain. In glass, I was always thinking about adding texture and this was no different. James showed me a few tools that could add some texture, and I settled on one that created small divots. I made a ribbon all the way around the vase with that. Then it was done! A florist added some flowers to the top, and everyone oohed and aahed at it all day during the event.

 The finished product

The finished product

It was really exciting, and overall not as difficult as I thought it might be. As long as I have the tools and the giant ice, I could probably make a lot of things. It was really fun to make stuff with my hands again, too, and use this kind of 3D sculptural thinking again that I don't have to use very often.

 My vase after it melted all day

My vase after it melted all day

It made me think a lot about process art and medium. In process art, the focus or the 'art' is the act of making, not the finished product. Jackson Pollock is a prime example. For him, the act of dripping and throwing paint across the floor is what makes it, not the finished product. Is that the same in ice? Of course, the finished product still matters, but ice melts. Ice time is fleeting. James mentioned that one of the most exciting parts of ice sculpting is seeing it melt over time. It makes me think that the process of melting is what makes it what it is to view an ice sculpture. Corporate companies hiring him to carve their logos out of ice probably aren't considering any of this, but it sure is interesting to think about. 

And then there's medium. There were many discussions when I was in school about what limits what. Is the idea limited by the skill set and medium? Or is the medium only limited by the idea? I tend to think that I, personally, can only do so much. I can't do that which I can not do, simple as that. Even if I take a lot of classes and read a lot of books, I can only become a better version of me. Everything I make still comes from me and has my hand and eye. That makes me want to try out all available mediums and see how they fit into what I do. I like to learn every aspect of a medium and look at how other people have used it, then try to come up with new ideas of how I myself can use it. I do a lot of knitting and other fiber works, I blow glass, I do print making, and now I carve ice. All of those rely on a specific medium which I have learned a lot about and continue to explore. Even cooking fits into that, making things out of food (I still have a food blog!). 

The last obvious thing to mention, then, is design. I view design as figuring out how to pull what I want out of a computer. A computer is its own medium, one that I have explored a ton and always continue to try to make new things with. Its just the same as all the other things I do. It's all making. Overall, I am a maker. I am a creative problem solver. 

 Another sculpture by James

Another sculpture by James

Thank you so much James, for teaching me about ice and helping me process all of my conceptual thoughts. I definitely recommend him + ICEovation for a fun ice addition to your event!