Originally created 08/03/97

Cool works of art



The industrial setting seems appropriate to Kerry Armbruster's artwork.

Not that there's anything industrial about the finished product - an ice sculpture of a swan, which, in fact, is the picture of delicacy. It might be mistaken for fine crystal were it not for the puddles it creates around its base.

The creative process is different, though. It's quick and loud and sends chunks flying in the air.

He set ups on the loading dock of the Dixie Ice & Coal's refrigerated warehouse just off Gordon Highway. He works on the loading dock so he can drag the finished product inside the refrigerated chamber immediately after he finishes.

Mr. Armbruster sometimes uses a chisel, but his chief tool is a chain saw. He uses it to freehand the swan's outline and cut away everything except the finest detail.

He has to work quickly. Because the ice is melting, carving can't take much more than an hour.

This swan is one of hundreds he has done. It will be displayed at a wedding in North Augusta. Like the others, it will lose its features in three or four hours, dwindling into an unrecognizable lump.

Is this art?

``Yes,'' said Mr. Armbruster, sweaty from his labors. ``I think I have artistic ability - but I'm not an expert at it.''

Mr. Armbruster, a former executive chef and current clubhouse manager at the Augusta Country Club, doesn't know of any ice sculpture experts in the immediate area. Most ice carvers are people like himself, who learned ice sculpting as part of their culinary training. They do most of their carving with a chain saw, and they work quickly, making centerpieces for weddings, banquets and Sunday brunches. They fulfill standard orders: a swan, a sea horse, a penguin, a vase of flowers.

``The business I'm in is making people feel happy,'' he said. ``It's hospitality.''

Bill Wilkinson creates a couple of ice sculptures a month in his job as executive chef at West Lake Country Club. Watching your creations melt away is sometimes a painful process, he said. You get it right, and it disappears.

``Just about every one that you do that comes out nice, you wish it would last,'' Mr. Wilkinson said.

The real frustration in ice sculpture, though, is the fragility of the pieces. The sculptures that bother the chefs are the ones that break before they ever make it to display.

Mr. Wilkinson once took four shots at carving a swordfish, only to have it break in the same spot each time. Fausto Curiel, executive chef at the Sheraton Augusta Hotel, said members of the hotel staff sometimes break his ice sculptures by accident as the finished works sit in the hotel freezer. Mr. Armbruster recalls a sculpture that broke as it was being lifted onto a table.

Ice sculptors use 330-pound blocks that are frozen with special techniques to produce extra-clear ice. The ice is so clear Mr. Armbruster can carve his swan on one side, and then turn it around and use the marks as a see-through guide on the other. The ice is frozen from the inside out, which forces out the air bubbles and streaks seen in refrigerator ice.

The sculptors remember their special pieces. At a hotel in Orlando, Fla., Mr. Curiel made a wagon that required 24 blocks of ice and took him six days to put together.

In Tucson, Ariz., Mr. Wilkinson used 26 blocks of ice to make a big display for the country club managers' association. Mr. Armbruster's personal favorite was a three-block Arch of Triumph he made at the Augusta Country Club.

Mr. Curiel agrees that ice sculpture is art. Even if it's a pattern you've made many times before, once you start cutting your imagination goes to work.

It may be a thing of beauty. It's just not a joy forever - just as long as people are eating.

That's ice sculpture.

``Unfortunately, yes, it's melting away,'' Mr. Curiel said, ``but it's just for the luxury of the place.''