The Iceman Cometh

He was a chef, once.

Scanning his eyes across his domain, he’d take stock of meats, spices, greens, bouillon and other ingredients, and wield the tools at his disposal to craft creations to tease and delight, sate and enrich. He was a chef, once, and he was a good one.

At some point around ten years ago, that all changed.

These days, Jason Bluck, owner of Subzero Ice Carvings in Falmouth, sees beauty in ice and snow. Eschewing knives and pots for chainsaws and chisels, Bluck creates things in media most of us don’t think twice about. It’s all fair game—in addition to the frozen stuff, Bluck’s been known to work in sand and wood as well.

“The biggest difference between the materials is texture,” he explained. “Ice is easy if you use a chainsaw. There are no knots or grain, like in wood. Sand, on the other hand, is almost like drying cement when packed.”

But snow, he explains, is the most delicate of all. He goes on to describe the fine grains you’ll find as you scrutinize each creation more closely. It’s like talking to a physicist about string theory—the deeper you go, the more beauty you’ll find in the details. He describes a carving he did years ago of the Bender character from the “Futurama” television series at a public event. The arms were barely supported, he said. It was a wonder no one knocked them off.

Bluck started down this path in an unconventional way. He went to school for drafting and architecture, and started working as a dishwasher at a restaurant to pay the bills. Eventually, he moved up and became part of the chef ranks. His real interest, however, was in the “arts” aspect of the culinary arts.

“Most chefs can do something like this,” he said. “Most of them can carve garnishes, but I wanted to take it further. It was always in the back of my head. Some universities actually offer courses and seminars on ice carving, but it’s expensive. It wasn’t really an option.”

Then, about ten years ago, Bluck made friends with a co-worker who happened to be into carving, and who would become his mentor (“I was very lucky,” said Bluck). He took Bluck on as an apprentice and showed him the ropes. “I was just trying to perfect my vertical cuts, my horizontal cuts,” he said. “It was a real crash course.”

As it turns out, Blucks’s mentor was Ed Jarrett, who in 2003 set a Guinness World Record for tallest sandcastle in Falmouth. Not to be outdone, Bluck assisted Jarrett in breaking that record in 2007 with a 32-foot sculpture in Casco as a fundraiser project for Camp Sunshine.

In 2008, Bluck spent money on his own tools and embarked on his own sculpting and carving career. He started doing more elaborate carvings, finer cuts and different designs. He said that while he still does some sand work, the bulk of his requests are of a colder variety.

“Most of the requests I get are for ice bar events, private events, and winter weddings,” he said. “In the spring and summer I start getting more requests for corporate logo pieces and pieces for campgrounds. I do live demonstrations year-round.”

They’re not limited to company events, Bluck said, adding that they can work with house parties, project graduations—you name it. “We once did some work for an adult toy company, some pretty risque stuff. That was an interesting project,” he said.

In fact, Bluck says the only real restrictions on his ability to create are propriety and safety. “We try to never say ‘no’ unless the job’s unsafe,” he said. “Safety is very important to us. I’m not comfortable setting something up if there’s a chance it can fall. We always do consults and site evaluations.”

It’s an important consideration, given the fact that a single block of ice weighs an average of 300 pounds. “We start with a pristine, 20x40x10 ice block” created impurity-free in a device called a Clinebell machine, the same used for making artisanal ice, said Bluck. “It’s totally see through.”

From this raw material, Bluck determines the scope of the project. If it’s a single block piece (think swans and drink luges), he can go to town with his arsenal of tools—electric steel chainsaws for the big work; chisels, angle grinders, die grinders and more for the fine work. He makes sure to spray his tools with WD-40 to minimize corrosion. Any rust, he said, would show up on the crystal clear ice he works with.

A multi-block project, like a throne or an ice bar, requires much more prep time. For these projects, blocks can be planed down to 5 in. thick slabs, assembled into the general shape, and carved from there. After the final assembly, large sheets of heated aluminum can be used to flatten the surfaces and fuse them together.

While the technical aspect is involved, Bluck’s creative process is deceptively simple.

“Most of the carvings I do are muscle memory at this point,” he said, noting that he’s started experimenting with drawn templates to aid in more detailed designs. “I can trace out the basic design with a tapered bit and go from there.”

It takes about 40 gallons of water to make an average ice sculpture, according to Bluck. That’s a lot of water. You’d be forgiven for wondering where all that water ends up when the event’s over.

“[The sculptures’ longevity] depends on the environment and the size,” said Bluck. “It could be hours, or it could be much longer. When we deliver it, we wrap it in blankets and put it in a cold delivery truck. After we set it up, it’s up to the customer. Sometimes they ask that we come back and we recycle the pieces, but usually they just break it down themselves. Smashing it at the end of the evening to melt is a nice ending to a hectic event.”

In 2010, Subzero Ice Carvings was honored with a People’s Choice award at the NH Sanctioned & Jackson Invitational Snow Sculpting Competition in Jackson, New Hampshire.

“We were the black sheep there,” said Bluck. “It seemed like more of a fine arts crowd, and we created a Bender character and a ‘carver’s lounge’ with seats and a beverage chiller. We were kind of off to the side. We didn’t think we stood a chance. We weren’t even present when we were announced—we were getting a beer. We thought we were all done!”

Going forward, Bluck said his biggest plans for Subzero Ice Carvings is to continue perfecting his craft.

“I want to continue focusing on this business and improving the quality of the product,” he said. “Every year I make a goal to buy a new tool and learn a new technique. I think that’s a good goal.”

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