A chill time: The ice bar at the Aurora Ice Museum in Chena Hot Springs. | Education Images/Universal Images Group/Getty Images
A chill time: The ice bar at the Aurora Ice Museum in Chena Hot Springs. | Education Images/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

In Alaska, Champions—and Bars—Get Carved from the Ice

What’s cooler than cool? The life of an ice-sculpting champion.

To be an ice sculptor takes precision and artistic talent, or at least the ability to work a chisel. To be an ice-sculpting champion takes all that plus creativity and drive, plus being able to withstand—thrive in, really—freezing temperatures for extended periods of time.

Heather Brice checks all those boxes. An eleven-time World Ice Art Champion, she’s competed in the Olympics, and—along with her husband, Steve (a nineteen-time champion)—owns Brice & Brice Ice Sculptures, which includes a custom line of sculpting tools. You can see the couple’s work year-round at the spectacular Aurora Ice Museum at Chena Hot Springs in Fairbanks, Alaska, which they created and maintain. And you can see them both competing in this year’s World Ice Art Championships, which take place February 14 to March 2 in Fairbanks. Just don’t ask Heather what she’s carving yet. As told to Vanita Salisbury.

I’m almost a lifelong Alaskan; I moved here when I was 7. So Fairbanks is home for sure. I have a background in art: I went to college and did a BFA in sculpture, with bronze casting as my major focus. My minor was in native arts wood carving. Then I had a baby, and as a way to keep my artistic side energized a friend of mine recommended that I call her cousin to try carving ice. And that’s how I got started. And that carver, her cousin, is now actually my husband, Steve.

There really aren’t many similarities between bronze and ice sculptures. Most of the time when you’re doing bronze, you have a Plasticine clay, so it’s more of an additive creation. Whereas ice is more of a reduction—you’re taking away what doesn’t belong. But you can also add to ice, which makes it versatile.

I started competing because Steve mentioned something about a competition coming up, and my ears perked. It turned out to be the World Ice Art Championships. I’m pretty competitive—I grew up as a swimmer. I begged to be on his four-man team that year; in my very first year of competing, we won. And I haven’t looked back. I competed in the Olympics in Italy in 2006. That was cool. It’s in the arts and culture aspect of the Olympics so it’s not an official event, but usually there’s an organizer with the host country that puts together an ice-sculpting competition.

'Soul Collector' by Christ Foltz and Heather Brice, 2016. | Photo by Heather Brice

I teach as well, a little bit. A lot of our students have an art background, or at least a culinary background. That’s where most of the ice carvers come from, the culinary field, doing shrimp trays and tabletops and things like that. Some of them just want to get more into the competition level, so they come to us to learn the artistic side of it.

For a brand-new class, just for fun, we’ll start with a snowman. So you’re taking probably like a 10-by-10-inch block that’s maybe 20 inches tall and we’re teaching them the geometry of turning a square into a sphere. And we’ll have them work from the top down doing the hat, then the head, then the middle. Also just getting familiar with the tools. We do a lot of safety: don’t chisel towards your hand, that sort of thing. The tools are all razor-sharp. I test my chisels when I sharpen them by shaving the hair on my arm.

I test my chisels when I sharpen them by shaving the hair on my arm.

For the more advanced classes, we’ll start with a hand, so it’s more of an anatomy lesson. We have templates that we use in paper, which you can just get wet and stick right to the ice. The next-level class would be heads and faces, which is obviously super-complicated, but we do a step-by-step process. And we do an advanced class too, where we do a full woman figure.

There used to be a really big carving community in Fairbanks that did instruction. A few of the businesses will hire artists to do sculptures that are up usually from this time of year until they melt. But we’re all kind of aging out. Down in the States, there’s a huge industry for ice sculptors for tabletops and corporate events, things like that. Most of our buddies down in the States probably have $300,000 net-income businesses. The shop setup is the most expensive part—having the freezer space, electricity, water; they’ve gotta have the machines to produce the blocks—they’re called Clinebell ice blocks. They have circulating pumps in them so it freezes really clear.

'A Little Help' by Steve and Heather Brice, 2007. | Photo by Alaskaphotographics.com

Every year we also have the World Ice Art Championships here in Fairbanks. There are 12 four-man multi-block teams, 12 two-man teams, and 15 one-person events. Our blocks are four-by-six feet, however thick they are that year. I’ve won eleven times, but I’ve been helping out organizing the past few years. For this one, there are no trials. It’s first-come, first-served. They like to have designs submitted early, but usually they let it slide until the end. We carve outdoors in a magical campground area of the Tanana Valley State Fairgrounds. It’s super-cool. The big spruce trees are like 100 feet tall.

I like carving whimsical animals and things. I did a seahorse a few years ago that turned out really great. I have my design pre-planned out, and the first thing I do when I’m looking at my block is know what big pieces I need to take off so that I can do my smaller components. We have a big chainsaw. Our chains are basically wood chainsaws, but we take the rakers down so that they’re not dragging so much. They just really slice.

Judges look at technical skills and artistic skills. You win a great medal. The prize money is not huge: for the multi-block last year, first place was $1,258 per person. It’s not bad, and it helps replace some tools that we wear out in competition.

Can we interest you in a martini glass made of ice? | Kit Leong/Shutterstock

When I’m not ice-sculpting or teaching, I’m a health and wellness coach. But I also help maintain the year-round Aurora Ice Museum at Chena Hot Springs. That’s been our baby for about 17 years. Chena is about 60 miles from Fairbanks, so there’s no ambient light from the city, and the northern lights are amazing. It’s a really neat destination.

Steve designed pretty much all of the museum. It’s all made of ice and kept at about 25 degrees [Fahrenheit]. There’s an ice bar and an ice turret and a jousting knight scene that’s been there since the beginning. There’s chandeliers, an ice chapel and ice igloo; and in the back, there are four bedrooms that people can rent, but they don’t really call it a hotel.

The bar is only open during the tours, which they do every other hour starting at 11 a.m.. And you can get a souvenir—when people buy an apple martini for their tour, it’s served in an ice martini glass.

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Vanita Salisbury is Thrillist's Senior Travel Writer. She now only wants to drink out of an ice martini glass.