"How delightful to become an ice-sculptor," Will Smith swoons. "Shirtless, sweating hunks, they wield chainsaws like Byronic lumberjacks." Well, not quite. But it turns out it's not a little cathartic to smash up an ice penguin ...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Winter 2008
How delightful to become an ice-sculptor. Shirtless, sweating hunks, they wield chainsaws like Byronic lumberjacks, and transform dull buffets into tableaux of arctic beauty. I sense this mission will release in me dormant reserves of testosterone and artistry. My wife disagrees. She points out that, first, my feats of strength are limited to playing “Crackdown” on the Xbox, where, as a supercop, I am able to crush lawless gang members by throwing trucks at them. Second, I reached my artistic peak in year two at primary school: my classic of that era, “Spaghetti Bird” (1978, pasta on paper), still hangs framed in my parents’ living room.
Still, I feel sure it will be glamorous, creating, say, a huge vodka luge in a faintly titillating shape for models to suck on at a wild media party. And my tutor will be Duncan Hamilton, a former chef who spearheaded a revival in the craft in the 1970s and is now Britain’s leading ice sculptor. So I’m a little disappointed that Duncan’s workshop is on an industrial estate in suburban south-west London and that, rather than being bare-chested, I am expected to wear a pair of overalls. Also disappointing: we will be carving from the living ice not a giant naked lady, but a penguin. Duncan assures me that with his help I can manage this feat in a couple of hours. I find this as likely as:
a) A scientist telling me it will take a couple of days for me to clone an actual penguin.
b) A penguin carving a sculpture of me.
c) A worldwide penguin-led coup.
We start, unsurprisingly, with a block of ice. Duncan draws an outline of a penguin on a large sheet of paper. (I am glad to be relieved of this duty: “Spaghetti Bird” was created 30 years ago, after all; at a push, I could draw a banana, but only if I had one to trace around.) I pin the paper onto the block of ice, then use a thing like a spiked pastry-cutting wheel to cut through the outline, leaving grooves on the ice. Duncan then slices along these with a chainsaw. I was right about the lumberjack thing: this looks just as manly as tree-felling, but without the ecological guilt.
We now have a more recognisably penguiny lump of ice. Time to start on the detail. Planing and shaving with chisels and saws, I focus at first on the breast and wings, while Duncan deals with trickier bits of physiognomy, such as the feet. After a while, I am allowed to graduate upwards to the beak. But disaster strikes. After ten minutes’ chiselling, it becomes clear I’ve made the beak too low. Plus it seems to be sticking out at a peculiar, un-beaklike angle. Duncan’s faintly upsetting solution is to saw it off and start again. This involves the unsettling business of rubbing a penguin’s face with a hot iron to make it melt, then holding a fresh chunk of ice against it till it refreezes. This time, Duncan chisels the beak. And there we are: a penguin.
A problem now emerges. You finish an ice sculpture, and then what? You can watch it warm and melt, diminishing drip by drip in a slow, undignified death. Or, in a kind of artistic euthanasia, you can smash it up. I can confirm there is something supremely satisfying about hitting a block of ice with the different ends of an ice axe. You create fissures, cracks and sprays of ice. It’s as exciting as watching polar ice cliffs sheer and fall, without worrying about flooding in Norfolk.
Of course, I had first to get over the fact that what I was attacking looked like a penguin. I did this by reminding myself of two past penguin-related atrocities—my alarming teenage weight gain (Penguin chocolate biscuits), and Batman’s rubbish superhero enemy, the Penguin (who had none of the attributes of a penguin—ie, did not lay eggs, could not survive in Antarctic conditions and was not the prey of killer whales). At the end of my frenzy the piece has transformed: from cute bird to a pile of the mushy stuff you find stuck to bags of frozen peas.
So there we have it. I sculpted (and smashed) a penguin. I displayed creative sensitivity and brute strength; in the true tradition of artist as god, I both created and destroyed. This gives me an idea. I have decided to complete the cycle on my other avian-based artwork. Next time I visit my parents, I will rip “Spaghetti Bird” from the wall and boil it up for supper.
Picture Credit: David Yeo