Ice Alaska

Our fearless Glacial Art Ice Sculptors team took on the mother of all ice sculpting championships this year when they flew over 4000 miles around the world for Ice Alaska 2017.

Left to right: Attila Olah, Paul Crawford, Mat Chaloner, Mat Foster
Left to right: Attila Olah, Paul Crawford, Mat Chaloner, Mat Foster

Their first time at this prestigious event, up till now the team had been comfortable with the European Ice Sculpting Championships held in Latvia each year, with Mat F and Mat C claiming two bronzes, a silver and a gold between them. An off-hand comment in an interview for the Liverpool Echo last year brought the idea of going to the championships to the team at Liverpool Gin, and suddenly an impossible dream became very much real. This was their opportunity to compete with some of the world’s greatest ice artists.

“It costs a lot to send 4 people over to Alaska and we had to close the business for 12 days.  Without Liverpool Gin’s help we would never have been able to afford it. We are forever grateful for that.”

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Both Mats were aware that they would be the first fully British team to enter the competition – and with a legacy like that, they knew their design needed to be quintessentially British. During a brainstorming session, the team found that a documentary about the late great David Bowie provided them with all the inspiration they needed – an iconic jumpsuit, designed by Kansai Yamamoto and worn for his Aladdin Sane tour, gave them a  solid starting point for the design. The additional arms were inspired by Hindu gods, and the large hour glass represented the changing of time. Extra details included the Changes line “Time may change me, but I can’t trace time”, as well as the inscription “1947-∞”, a dedication to the eternal memory of Bowie’s music and art. Thanks to the careful management of their ice supplies, the team were also able to add a giant Ziggy Stardust-esque lightning bolt to the back of their piece.

“We wanted to create something that showed how Bowie had transcended mortality and how his legend will live on forever…we wanted it to be something Bowie would have enjoyed”

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It would have been impossible for the team to create the full 5.5M sculpture in the UK – instead they focussed on smaller elements of the sculpture, such as his hands and head. There was no back-up plan, no safety net, and a huge learning curve ahead of them.

Later, in Alaska…

The temperatures vary from -15 to -25 during the day, and fall as low as -37 at night – Mat F, Mat C, Attila and Paul have five days of work to do, carving and stacking 20 tonnes of ice,  from 9am to 10pm each day. As you can imagine, the work is physically and mentally challenging, and by the time they finish at night the air is so cold it hurts to breathe. “Our beards were solid icicles, our chainsaws froze up…” Mat F recalls. It wasn’t all horrible however; “The Northern Lights would come out and dance in the night sky,” and while the work was hard the atmosphere was charged, and they were truly working among the greats – “It was all very exciting!”

The first real roadblock came when the team realised that the chainsaw they’d brought over from the UK was far too small for the job ahead of them. After some initial grumbling, the tool technician took on the role of saviour – “he walked around to the back of his pick-up and lifted out the king of all chainsaws. It was easily as big as I am tall. With a big grin he shouted, ‘I got you boys a man-killer!’”

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The third night was the coldest, and the hardest for the team. Attila had spent two days working on the hour glass that would sit between the Bowie sculpture’s legs, but when it came to fusing the pieces together, the hour glass exploded due to the extreme cold. None of the sculpture could be assembled without it in place – all mental deadlines for completion went out the window. “All around us these giant ice sculptures were rising into the sky as the other teams pushed well ahead of us,” says Mat. “You are constantly falling behind your own schedule. It gets the point where you are simply too tired to worry any more. You have to just keep cracking on”

Another disaster struck with just ten minutes until the finishing horn was sounded. In the process of clearing snow from the top of the sculpture, Mat F accidentally knocked one of the hands off the statue, causing it to fall three metres to the floor and shatter. “Panic and frustration threatens to pull the team apart at moments like that,” Mat remembers. With no time to carve a new hand, Mat and Attila somehow managed to glue the shards together with snow and water, and reattached the hand – just as the horn sounded.

Mat remains certain that the team’s cooperation was what kept them afloat. “Together, the four of us are a very strong team…we all know how to work under pressure, and to tight deadlines.” With only their own experience, grit and determination, our four Brits had to depend on each other to bring the legacy of David Bowie to this huge competition.

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In case you were wondering – they didn’t manage to take home any awards. But that was never the goal; the idea was to be in this incredible place, working hard and gaining experience among the masters of their craft. What’s more, this was their only chance to carve a sculpture this large, and they wouldn’t have missed it for the world (although if you’d asked them at the time they might have begged to leave!). They did however win the online vote – a sign that the cultural capital of David Bowie hasn’t diminished since his death, and that friends and family in the UK were all behind them.

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Returning to the UK, their usual blocks of ice seemed so much smaller and lighter. Most of their sculptures in the UK can be carried without the need of a forklift or crane, and while it’s a relief to be away from the extreme cold, they’re already itching for another go with the big boys in Alaska.

If you’d asked the team at the end of their five days whether they wanted to go back, it would have been an emphatic no – a gruelling experience such as this isn’t an easy one to repeat. The snow has since settled however, and they’re already making plans for their return in 2019, equipped with the knowledge and experience to take it all the way. “We are all hungry for a proper medal next time!”

 

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