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).

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Eric Dexheimer
Contact: Eric Dexheimer