The phrase "ice sculpture" brings to mind, at least to my mind, two distinct pictures: Graceful tabletop centerpieces in elegant settings, slowly losing form as they equalize with room temperature, and archaic visions of frozen chips flying as an artisan chops away at a block with a chainsaw. Ice sculpting tools have become much more specialized, says Jeff Bleier, an award-winning regional ice sculptor. And the practice is a competitive, niche art-sport that can bring top sculptors all the way to the Winter Olympics.
Bleier is owner-chef of the Caledonia Village Inn, which hosts the annual Caledonia Ice Festival in celebration of the craft. The merry, mid-winter party — the seventh edition is scheduled for February 25 — is also held to help the community stave off the seasonal doldrums.
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Bleier speaks with a jovial, easy-going tone as he explains that he sort of stumbled upon ice sculpting in the mid-1980's, when he was attending Monroe Community College for commercial art and working as a cook at the Hilton Hotel on Jefferson Road. In addition to running the kitchen, the chef at the time would create an ice carving for every Sunday brunch.
The chef "ended up breaking his leg, and they needed someone to fill in," Bleier says. "So I'm like, 'Yeah, sure. I'll give that a shot.' That's how it all started — carving for Sunday brunches."
Before long, Bleier met some other ice crafters and began traveling to national ice carving competitions in Pennsylvania, and he began to develop his unexpected enthusiasm into an art.
"The brunch pieces were a little more solid, bulky, thick — something that's gonna last indoors in the warmth for six to 10 hours," he says. "A competition piece is thin, delicate, fragile, and it's all about balance and outline. It only needs to last for 10 minutes after being judged. Then it can fall down and break and it doesn't matter, 'cause they've judged the piece. Pushing it to the limit is what you want to do in a competition."
One of the works he's most proud of creating is a sculpture of a motorcyclist doing the "Superman" stunt (where the rider holds the handlebars while kicking their legs straight behind them). Other dynamic creations, viewable on the "ice gallery" page of the inn's website, include a bucking horse and rider, and a stag beneath an owl in flight — the antlers and outstretched feathers of the latter sculpture truly showcase the level of delicate detail an artist can eke from the ice.
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The contemporary tools of the trade have come a long way, Bleier says, and now include die grinder bits and rasp bits, which enable the carver to create fine details, and different flows and symmetry into the ice.
Each sculpture begins with a sketch, Bleier says, "then you expand the block by taking it apart, moving some pieces, and welding it back together with a fusing technique."
This is achieved by using heated aluminum flats that weld pieces of the ice together, Bleier says. "It just holds — the temperatures have to be right, sometimes you have to hit it with dry ice."
Bleier in the late-90's began competing in the World Ice Art Championships, held annually in Fairbanks, Alaska. At the six-day competition, teams of four artists create a work from 12 four-foot-square blocks of ice, some finished pieces reaching 25 feet in height. Bleier's team took second place in the championships a few of times, including in 2002, which earned him a spot at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.
"The guy who had taken first was already qualified for the Olympics, so the seat went to second place," Bleier says. He chose his brother as his partner, and their sculpture of Dorothy from "The Wizard of Oz" earned them 10th place.
Bleier and his wife Lisa bought the Caledonia Village Inn nine years ago this April. "With owning the restaurant, it's hard to get away and compete anymore, to get up to Alaska," he says. "It's almost a full two weeks with travel, competing, awards, and all that. So it's a lot of time for me to take off when we started the restaurant."
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Bummed and missing the thrill of competing, Bleier started the Caledonia Ice Festival, which he hosts in the back lot of the inn each winter. During the afternoon and into the evening he works at shaping a massive sculpture while visitors take in live music, kids' games, and can purchase food and drinks from regional vendors. It's grown over the years to include bonfires, an outdoor ice bar, and photo booths.
This year's fest has a "Flintstones" theme, and Bleier says he's planning a sculpture in the shape of Fred sliding down his brontosaurus-crane's tail as he's leaving work. There'll also be "Bedrock bowling" and other themed kids' games, themed food, and an ice "shot luge" bourbon tasting.
The organizers are hoping for a cloudy day on the 25th, but not so cold that the community stays in — the success of the event is a delicate balance between the sun staying hidden and the people coming out.
"There's just two things you get out of ice carving: Photos and memories," Bleier says with a chuckle. "It's not a lasting art. But yeah, it's been a hobby that's carried me through in the artistic thing, and given me the ability to create eye-pleasing sculptures that people enjoy and are fascinated by. And then boom! The sun comes out."