The iceman carveth: Mike Pizzuto.
The iceman carveth: Mike Pizzuto.

Chips Off the Blocks

"The main thing you gotta remember," says Mike Pizzuto, his breath condensing in the frigid air, "is that it's just like any sport. You gotta keep hydrated. And no alcohol. You can't be workin' with chainsaws and ice and drinking alcohol."

You think pro ball players have it rough, with their silly little sprains and strains and hairline breaks? Never mind the booze -- consider the perilous lot of the sober competitive ice carver: a convergence of slippery surfaces, numb fingers, physical fatigue, power tools and the looming presence of the time clock. A little while back, at a big competition in Canada, one carver slipped a die grinder (a handheld power tool with a sharp bit) through his hand. Messed his ice all up and took four surgeries to repair. Such catastrophic breakdowns between man, ice and machine are rare. Still, it makes you think twice about Shaq and his toe.

Today, luckily, there is no such pressure. The only work to be done is the ordinary stuff Mike does to pay the bills: the finishing touches on a large, gleaming equine-head centerpiece for a horsey association in a Denver suburb, and an ornate number 70 for a birthday party. "This one," he says, nodding to the horse, "is gonna be up five hours on a buffet. That one" -- the 70 -- "is gonna be only three, so I can get nice and cutesy with it."

For the purposes of this birthday party, cutesy means curlicues delicately engraved into the ice using a die grinder with a custom bit. Mike gouges each of the cuts identically with a deft thrust and flip of the wrist. "I get this from my years as a pastry chef," he says. "It's a lot of cross-training." The added facets make the carving glitter like a disco ball.

Even with no competitive pressures, ice has its own demands. "A very fast medium; you're always working with time constraints," Mike explains. Other medium-specific concerns might never occur to an artist working in, say, bronze. "You got shrimp at the bottom of this, and you get chainsaw oil on it..." He shakes his head. Let's just say that ice carvers don't need attention from the health department.

Stepping outside into Colorado's winter is something you must do once in a while to warm up in this profession. Mike is dressed in his standard work clothes: parka, ski hat, snow pants, thick gloves and large insulated boots. "I dress like this all year round," he says in the voice of a man maybe beginning to think that retirement isn't such a terrible idea.

His office is a piece of spare warehouse floor at the heavily refrigerated Reddy Ice Company, tucked away in the industrial hodgepodge of buildings just north of downtown Denver. The company lets Mike -- as well as several other local carvers -- use the place in exchange for the occasional pre-carved piece, which Reddy then sells. The only things sharing the space with Mike today, however, are several dozen gleaming blocks of ice of the standard industry size -- forty inches tall, twenty inches wide, ten inches thick -- laid out on the floor like large, translucent bricks.

Every year, Mike vacations in Maui.

The current mega-star of the frost-fashioning circuit is Scott Rella, who recently moved to Avon from New York. Rella, 44, is one of three founders of Fear No Ice -- the "world's only performance ice sculptors." The company is hot. Very hot. Think the Rolling Stones. On ice.

"A couple months ago, I get this call from The Tonight Show, and they said, 'We'd like you to be on with Jay Leno.' And I said, 'What the hell took you so long?'" Rella recalls. "They wanted us to come on in December, and I told them, 'Forget it. We're too booked up in December.'"Using a blasting rock-and-roll sound-track, smoke, lights, many power tools and a lot of stage presence, Rella and his gang of carvers will fashion a piece of chilly art for you and your guests while you watch. And really, when you can charge $10,000 for a fifteen-minute show -- and up to a hundred grand for extremely large pieces -- who needs Leno?

The members of Fear No Ice are the Harlem Globetrotters of professional ice carving -- a gang of gifted craftsmen with a preference for showbiz. At a 2000 expo, Rella chiseled a seven-foot voodoo mask with fire coming out of its mouth. His work has appeared in movies (The Mirror Has Two Faces, a Barbra Streisand vehicle) and on television (an entire ice stage, complete with flaming ice torches, for a Ricky Martin performance on the Today Show).

He's hewn frozen water at the Olympics, the X-Games and the World Cup ski races. And that's not even getting into the lucrative corporate work. Recently, Rella hacked a replica of St. Basil's Cathedral out of ice for a black-tie gala sponsored by Stolichnaya Vodka. At another party, using a live model dressed in a red bikini, he carved a curvaceous sculpture that doubled as a drinking fountain; guests swallowed chilled alcohol out of her navel.

Is grinding the most common substance on earth into a recognizable form an athletic event? "Sure," says Rella. "I go to competitions in which you have 48 hours to sculpt twenty blocks of ice. Normally, I work for twenty, sleep four, and then work the last 24."

Like the vast majority of icemen working professionally today, Rella honed his chops as a chef, working brunches at New York City's glitzy Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. What started as just part of the job soon morphed into a specialty and, eventually, into a career. Fear No Ice was started in 1989. Today it books about a hundred events a year.

Rella and Fear No Ice may be the only performance ice carvers working today, but they aren't the only guys working in frozen water who have made it really big. A handful of specialists dotted across the country make a handsome living shaping hypothermic water. One, who works out of Chicago, is so busy he owns his own icehouse and reportedly earns more than $1 million a year.

Mike Pizzuto could do that -- if he wanted to. "But do I want to live in Chicago working fifteen hours a day carving ice?" he wonders. "I do not."

Still, Mike started out the same way as all the top guys -- although without the fancy Ivy League cooking credentials. The foundation for his culinary skills was laid at home, in Los Alamos, New Mexico. "Cooking was always a big deal in my house," he recalls. "My mom won the Pillsbury Bake-Off. Some kind of muffin." Later, her signature chicken-and-sour-cream dish earned another national title -- "from Purdue Chicken or something."

"I got a lot of Boy Scout merit badges for my cooking," Mike says. Thanks to a policy of determined public relations, he was able to follow his kitchen interests without the normal boy peer pressure. "I was captain of our wrestling team," he says. "Nobody was going to give me any shit."

After a year of college studying restaurant management, Mike dropped out to start cooking in the real world. He worked at hotels, country clubs and restaurants. He'd noticed that "the fancier places always used ice" to enhance the dining experience. Yet his personal epiphany didn't come until one day when he walked into a dining room and saw the executive chef creating a beautiful artwork for brunch (people always seem to like ice sculpture with their eggs Benedict).

"Ice," Mike explains, "has got that mystique. What's the largest piece of ice most people see? It's this tiny cube in a glass. So when you see something big, it's special. At a wedding, everybody gets pictures around the ice carving. The play of light -- the reflection and the refraction -- is like diamonds, like gems. People find it exciting."

As is the case with many of the top culinary athletic events, such as competitive eating and cooking, the Japanese traditionally have ruled the hothouse world of competition ice carving. The biggest events are held there, and the world's acknowledged masters hail from the island nation. "Many people don't realize how cold it is in Japan," notes Alice Connelly, executive director of the National Ice Carving Association.

Mike made his first trip to Japan in the mid-1980s. His debut competition was "a real eye-opener for me," he recalls. "They'd been doing this for nearly thirty years." For the next three years, Mike traveled back and forth between the U.S. and Tokyo, eventually earning a degree from the prestigious, if extremely specialized, Japan Ice Academy.

While there, he participated in grueling carving competitions, many lasting more than two days. In one marathon event, competitors were given 52 hours to create beauty out of twenty blocks of ice, each weighing 350 pounds. Miso soup was delivered in the wee hours to fortify their souls. Participants, their clothes stuffed with hot packs, stayed up the entire time, chopping, chiseling, fusing, finishing. "It's a young man's game," Mike sighs.

Connelly, the ice carvers association's director, agrees. "Carve ice for eight hours a day, five days a week for three years, and tell me how you feel," she says. "Bad backs, arthritis. I got out of it a few years ago after I hurt my back."

Still, competitive carving has grown in popularity since it started here, which, most people agree, was sometime around 1980. NICA was formed in tandem with the discovery of the sport in the U.S. as a way to standardize judging of carving contests.

Judges at NICA-sanctioned events generally evaluate competitors and their creations in ten separate categories. These range from "First Impression" ("The 'ooh-aah' effect," Connelly explains) to "Utilization of Ice" ("If you have a little midget guy maybe twelve inches tall standing on a 28-inch rock, well, maybe it might have been better with a thirty-inch man standing on the illusion of a rock.").

Other judged items include Attention to Detail ("Does the man have fingers on his hand, or is he wearing mittens?") and the always-controversial Creativity category. "Everybody has a swan; they all have a heart with lovebirds kissing," Connelly says. "But they couldn't win anything in a competition with that."

On the other hand, competition creations do tend to lean toward the predictably baroque. Wings, hearts and columns are common features. Some of that is because ice sculpture is enhanced by the refraction of light, which is gained by creating many angled surfaces. Yet much is the Elvis-black-velvet-art effect: It's just the way the form developed, and so everyone does it.

"We have people saying, 'There's nothing to be creative about anymore,'" says Connelly. "Well, yeah, there is. At a recent competition, a guy -- well-known carver -- carved his four sculptures with the theme 'Winged Things.' I could have guessed what he'd do each day. But another team did a chef theme. One day had a chef inside a pan with veggies piled on top of him. Another day a chef juggling coffee cups, or decorating a cake standing on one leg."

"Everyone is tired of seeing damn dragons and eagles," Mike admits.

Despite the similarities in the end product, the technical side of the event is advancing in leaps and bounds. Everyone uses the standard equipment: A souped-up electric chainsaw ("We take off the kick-back, use different lubricants -- OSHA people would die," Mike says), a die grinder and a set of extra-sharp -- usually Japanese-made -- chisels designed specially for ice shaving.

But new techniques keep popping up. Because a block of ice presents a limited number of possibilities, all great carvers must fuse pieces of ice to the core carving at one time or another -- a wing here, a harp there. Just a few years ago, it used to be common practice to jam smaller pieces onto the body and bind the two with slush. But because clarity is prized, the resulting seams were always a source of humiliation and point deductions.

These days, however, top competitors use aluminum discs heated on hot plates to create a thin film of water at the bonding site. Thanks to the new technology, the ice pieces fuse together invisibly. (One drawback: Adding the hot plates to the already-hefty tool load often overloads a tournament's electrical supply, particularly when the starting gun sounds and everyone turns on his machines. Power failures are common.)

Not surprisingly, a crucial factor in ice-carving competitions is the weather. Much like the America's Cup yachting race, "Competition carving is as much working under unpredictable conditions as it is carving skill," Mike admits. "Normally, you're working in the 30s and below. The best carving temperatures are between 20 and 30. Any warmer, and it gets too soft and won't bond. If it gets too cold, then the ice gets too brittle and hard to cut."

Naturally, conditions change as the day goes on and the sun arcs across the sky. As a result, a carver's location on the field of play has determined the outcome of many a competition. Contestants draw lottery numbers to determine their physical placement on the tournament grounds. Shade, of course, is desirable.

"One time I was put up against a big twenty-story building all made of glass," Mike remembers. "It was just like being next to an oven." Emotions run particularly high during the judging portion of the event, which usually happens toward mid-day, after contestants have been carving all morning.

Depending on the weather, those at the end of the line wait anxiously for the judges to arrive -- fuming while their meticulously crafted sculptures melt away into a pile of slush. The detail work disappears first. "If you've got an angel or a cupid holding a harp with wings on a column -- that sort of thing is gonna last a half-hour in the sun, at the most," Mike says.

Because of such glitches, for the past couple of years NICA has started to allow contestants to bring their own shade -- covers, tarps, umbrellas -- in an effort to level the carving field. In addition, this year, for the first time, the national championships (scheduled for the first weekend in February in Bensenville, Illinois) will occur at night. While the colder temperatures will make ice fashioning easier, it remains to be seen what effect it will have on the spectators.

"We're not in Michigan or Minnesota or Colorado, where people are outdoors all the time," Connelly admits. "In Chicago, people hibernate." Although the defending champ is Jeff Stahl, an iceman out of Cincinnati, the hottest carver on the circuit (and rare woman to beat) is Tajana Raukar, a Croat who now calls the U.S. home.

At age 57, Mike Pizzuto admits he is mostly out of the competitive carving game. These days he spends the bulk of his time teaching others. He has trained literally every reputable carver in Colorado -- all six of them -- and teaches his art at Johnson & Wales University.

Thanks to his vast experience -- he is considered the Grand Old Man of the sport -- Mike is also a popular judge at carving contests. This spring, he'll be the master of ceremonies for Clinebell's Colorado Classic, a two-day symposium sponsored by the Loveland-based manufacturer of top-quality ice-making equipment. (Day One: "Looking Beyond Wedding and Buffet Tables." Day Two: "Coloring Ice Designs -- The Latest Techniques.")

Despite the fatiguing and frigid work, Mike says he never gets tired of creating chilled art. And, contrary to what most people might think, the fleeting nature of his chosen medium is actually part of the appeal.

"How many people are carving in stone? Wood?" he asks. "My Japanese teacher says, 'Ice is ethereal. It's like the cherry blossoms in the spring' -- you know, Japanese and Chinese are all hot about cherry blossoms and shit. 'It's temporary -- put in the mind's eye, it transforms us. You hold it in the palm of your hand and then let it go.' So isn't that nice?"

Fear No Ice's Rella agrees. "I love being able to create all the time," he says. Besides, he points out, ice agrees with him professionally. "I've sold thousands and thousands of sculptures. I'd never be able to sell that many bronzes."

"The nice thing about ice," concludes Mike, "is that if it's a good design, you take a picture. If not, you let it melt. You got a fragile ego? Go work in stone."


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