Vail’s year-round snowman
Vail, CO Colorado
WOLCOTT – Paul Wertin’s walk-in freezer houses a simple lineup of frozen contents. And we’re not talking about peas and corn. Like Ernie’s and Bert’s wardrobe, there is not a variety of colors and materials, but rather one uniform item in mass quantity: 300-pound blocks of ice.
It doesn’t have to wear this look for long, however. Before that block of ice has much time to sigh, it could become a giant fish surfing the waves. Or a snowman. Or a full-service bar. Even a snowcone.
Once that block of ice meets its chainsaw-wielding maker, only he knows how it will ultimately transform.
Wertin operates Alpine Ice, sculpting everything from ice bowls to massive statues throughout the year … even extending his business to include fruity, hand-shaved ice treats in the summertime.
“The first thing that’s great about ice sculpting is, it’s fairly easy,” Wertin said. “The tools we use, they go through the ice like it’s butter. You’ve got that softness, that buttery feel. But ice has a crystalline structure that’s got this strength to it. So it’s a cool marriage of softness and structural integrity. The other thing I like is that it’s relatively cheap. If you screw something up, you didn’t screw up a really expensive piece of marble. It’s just fun. There are so many different things you can do with ice.”
An art student in college mainly focusing on two-dimensional mediums but dabbling in wood, stone and clay, it wasn’t until five years ago that Wertin was introduced to the world of ice. A friend at the time, Scott Rella of Fear No Ice, showed Wertin the tricks of the trade and in 2005 the two partnered to create Aspen Vail Ice. Last winter they parted ways and Wertin founded Alpine Ice.
Using specialized machinery, Wertin makes his own ice at his studio in Wolcott, storing the massive blocks until it is time to bust out the chisels and chainsaw.
“The machine that makes the ice is a big, stainless-steel box. Each machine has a spot for two blocks, so you just fill it up with water,” he explained. “One question everyone always asks is how you get it to come out clear, why isn’t it cloudy like most ice. You put pumps in the water and keep it moving while it’s freezing. It takes about three days to freeze a block of ice.”
Sometimes the blocks of ice hit the road in their raw form. This summer they are accustomed to it, as Wertin has used them (smaller, 90-pound blocks) to make shaved-ice treats at the Vail Farmers’ Market on Sundays, scraping off shards into a cup and topping them with organic fruit syrups (the peach, vanilla and rhubarb mint are all homemade).
Most of the sculpting work, however, is done in Wertin’s studio. Though the sculptures stick around longer in the winter, Wertin has had a busy summer of sculpting … everything from company logos to cowboys.
“It’s really anything and everything. A lot of what I do is a little more commercial, like logos and ice bars,” Wertin said. “Then there are carved seafood or fruit bowls for weddings or food festivals. I just took a cowboy down to Rifle. There has been a lot of wedding business this summer.”
From martini luges serving the couple’s signature cocktail to modern art pieces juxtaposed with floral arrangements, the world of ice possibilities is vast.
“It just depends on the person,” he said. “People usually have a pretty good idea of what they want. To me, the most important sculpture I’ve done is the one I’m working on. Even if it’s a bowl or a logo, I’m going to do my best work. But when you get to break out of the norm and be a little more creative, it’s fun.”
Though some ice sculptors work in freezers, many others work at room temperature. Ice becomes less prone to shattering once it warms up a little bit.
“You definitely feel a difference in temperatures of ice. You can have ice that’s negative 10 or ice that’s 25 degrees. You have to let the ice sit and temper otherwise if you put a chainsaw on it, it will shatter and pop,” he said. “A chainsaw is the main tool for doing the bulk work. You can actually do a lot of detail work with a chainsaw, too, using the tip for shaving. I also use a lot of grinding bits of different shapes and, of course, chisels. With ice, you can really do whatever you want with it.”
For larger sculptures requiring several blocks, such as the 10-foot tall snowman weighing in at 2,500 pounds that he sculpted on site in Cordillera last winter during a snowstorm, Wertin uses the simplest of glue: H2O. Water does wonders, he says, in holding hundreds of pounds of ice together. Before the chainsaws and chisels come into play, Wertin typically sketches a drawing of the sculpture, and occasionally blows it up to life-size in order to work more accurately with symmetry and dimensions.
He built the snowman in a raging blizzard and due to the lasting cold temperatures, it had a longer life than most of his pieces.
“The snowman was part of our holiday season,” recalls Cordillera special events manager Kirstin Shepherd. “It was nasty out – blowing snow and freezing. We gave him the direction to do a larger-than-life snowman and the outcome was great. He’s always very easy to work with. You just give him an idea and he’ll go with it. We try to dress up our events with ice when we can. It adds a conversation piece. Even as people are eating off of it [as is the case with ice sculptures incorporated into buffets] people appreciate that it is a work of art – it strikes up conversations.”
Unlike most sculptors who can admire their handiwork on a street corner or in a foyer for a lifetime to come, Wertin must learn to say goodbye to his masterpieces in a matter of days after they’re finished … sometimes – especially in the summer – in a matter of hours.
“That’s part of the deal – it’s not going to last,” he said. “There are two sides to that. When you do something really nice, you’re a little sad to see it go. That’s why I try to take pictures. They live on a little bit through photos. On the other hand, when it melts and goes away, people need more. There is always something new to create.”
For more information visit http://www.alpineicesculpture.com or call 970-306-7ICE (7423).