Ice carver vs. robot

Robert Scott Harrison's sculptures

By Assistant Arts & Culture Editor

In a studio the size of a small warehouse, the sound of whirring freezers echoes off of walls lined with chisels, saws and ironing plates as Danny “Hollywood” Rebholz prepares to turn a formless block of ice into art. 

Leaning over the 3 1/2-foot-tall block, Rebholz imagines the incisions and grooves that will eventually shape the cube of ice into a horse’s head. 

“It’s a unique artform: People still don’t know why you make it out of ice because it’s going to melt,” Rebholz said, digging his chisel into the ice. 

Rebholz is a master ice sculptor who has carved more than 5 million pounds of ice in his 25 years in the Chicagoland sculpting community. He has attracted international acclaim to his Villa Park, Ill., shop, World Class Ice Sculptures, 212 W. Stone Rd., which can be proved by every inch of wall space that is crowded with awards from international competitions and his hallway decked with news articles from around the globe praising his work. 

Although Rebholz is a skilled artist who has created sculptures for high-profile clients and events such as Nike, the Olympics and Jay Leno, new technology is threatening his profession and putting many handcarvers out of work. 

The community is tight-knit and cooperative with the National Ice Carving Association based in Oakbrook, Ill., having 400 members, and there are dozens of carving conventions and competitions worldwide. 

Alice Connelly, the owner of Ice Crafters and executive secretary of the NICA, considers competitions a big part of ice sculpting culture, and Fairbank, Alaska, hosts one of the biggest ice carving competitions in the world. Connelly is a judge at this monumental event. There are two main events: a single-block carving competition with 40 two-person teams and a multi-block event with 20 two-person teams. The association also hosts a competitive event for the general public. The single block in this competition is 8 foot by 5 foot by 3 foot. For the multi-block, the carvers get ten blocks, each 6 foot by 4 foot by 3 foot. “Most of the time it has a light blue tint to it,” Connelly said. “And I just think it’s because of the way the light going through ice absorbs the color of the sky.” 

Scott Harrison, a Canadian ice carver and high school culinary arts teacher, said he placed first at the Lake Louise Ice Magic Festival in 2006, which was his first time professionally competing. He said there is a lot that goes into entering a sculpture. 

“It all comes down understanding your skill set, understanding what you can produce in a time frame that is reasonable,” Harrison said. “You design accordingly, making sure you’re not going outside of your boundaries. If you can’t draw it, you can’t carve it. A lot of people find it as a hurdle in the very beginning when they’re ice carving.” 

Harrison said ice sculpting is a seasonal commerce. Businesses usually send most orders in December and January, and there are spikes of carving activity around holidays such as Valentine’s Day and Easter. During the spring and summer months, most ice carvers earn their income sculpting ice for weddings and other formal events. 

Harrison said he only operates his company during the winter. Teaching has become his main source of income, so he considers his sculpting business a “professional hobby.” 

“Years ago, it was a hobby,” Rebholz said. “Now it has become a full-fledged industry with business and business owners looking to use technology to do this stuff. I’m the last of the hand carvers.” 

The 1999 introduction of a new technology called Computerized Numeric Control made creating ice carvings more efficient, rendering hand carving a slower, more expensive process that companies began to reject in favor of the new machine. Rebholz said the company he worked for at the time CNC was introduced, Your Chef Custom Ice Sculpting, bought one of these machines and subsequently laid him off. From then on, Rebholz sculpted independently. 

The machines may reduce the need for handcarvers, but they allow sculptures to be produced quickly. Julian Bayley, owner of Canadian-based Iceculture Inc., owns three CNC routers that mass-produce sculptures to ship across the world. Iceculture Inc. was the first company to adapt the CNC for ice sculpting about 13 years ago, he said. While Bayley said he understands the plight of handcarvers like Rebholz, the CNC routers make mass production possible and allow his company to meet consumer demands. 

“You have to get the stuff out the door quickly,” Bayley said. “A lot of carvers [can] carve [one] Vince Lombardi trophy [for the Superbowl], but what do you do if somebody wants 50?” 

Bayley said Iceculture Inc., once crafted a 40-foot-tall ice castle in seven hours for the Disney Corporation in Times Square for “Good Morning America” Oct. 17, 2012. IceCulture Inc., which is 35 years old and has become one of the industry’s biggest international players. Without computerized technology, the job could not have been done in that time frame, he said. When his company is faced with tight deadlines, carving by hand is impractical because of the nature of the art, he said. 

The technology makes large-scale sculpting manageable, but budding businesses are at a disadvantage because they cannot always afford the equipment. Harrison, who has owned IceMan Unlimited in Canada for one year, said obtaining a CNC machine is his goal. 

“Most people with larger-scale business definitely have CNC machines and use CNC machines,” Harrison said. “That is something I plan to acquire eventually for my business. I am still probably about five years away from that.” 

According to Harrison, a CNC machine can cost $7,000–8,000, especially if an ice business decides to perform modifications since CNC machines are not originally made to carve ice. It can cost $50,000–75,000 for a machine equipped to handle ice in large quantities. 

“Ice carving has really opened an extreme amount of doors for me,” Harrison said. “It really shows that people can commit to their passions and produce things that are absolutely amazing.” 

CNC routers may pose a threat to the community, but Rebholz has begun teaching ice carving lessons to keep the artform alive. 

Although his art may melt away, Rebholz said his passion for ice carving is permanent. 

“People constantly ask me, ‘Are you sad when it melts?’ I [say] no because next year I get to make a new one,” Rebholz said looking back at his finished product. “Art for the moment, there is something to be said for that.”