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Ephemeral Beauty
Ice Sculpture

Ephemeral Beauty
Clear or frosted with the qualities of cut glass, sculptures carved from ice have a long history, even if they have a short lifespan. According to the British Broadcasting Corporation, ice sculpture has its origins in Alaska, Canada, and Greenland with the early Inuit peoples building shelters from snow and ice as far back as 4,000 years ago. The harvest of ice can be traced back to 600 BC in northwestern China.

Although initially harvested for purposes of food preservation and consumption, ice eventually took on an artistic quality. Incorporating salt and tools, fishermen in the Chinese province of Heilongjiang sculpted lanterns from ice. That tradition grew into the international sensation known as the Harbin Ice and Snow Festival that dazzles millions every year. 

Further north and no stranger to ice and snow, Russian empress Anna Ivanova ordered the construction of what may have been the first known ice palace in 1739 as a malicious joke. She used the ice palace as a distraction and forced Prince Mikhail Golitsyn to marry her ugly servant Avdotya Buzheninova. She then posted guards to ensure they spent their wedding night inside the ice palace. Artist Valery Jacobi commemorated the event in 1878.

People harvested natural ice, cutting blocks from frozen ponds, rivers, or deliberately flooded fields. Storage, of course, posed a problem. Sawdust was found to be an effective insulator and subsequently used to keep blocks of ice from melting in warm weather. In 1834, Jacob Perkins obtained a British patent for the first ice making machine. It used ether to freeze water. In 1859, Ferdinand Carre invented a machine that used ammonia to freeze water. The ammonia method produced clear ice. In 1964, Virgil Clinebell invented a machine that produced 15 lb. blocks of clear ice, perfect for making tabletop-sized ice sculptures. By the late 1980s, ice makers offered large, 300 lb. blocks of ice for sculpting.

Most commonly witnessed as impressive accents to banquet tables and beverage fountains, ice sculpting adds a touch of whimsy and elegance to receptions and formal dinners. On a much larger scale, cities around the world host ice sculpting contests and festivals, including the World Ice Art Championships in Fairbanks, Alaska USA, Ice Magic Festival in Banff, Canada, the Ice Festival in Parnu, Estonia, and the Sapporo Snow Festival in Sapporo, Japan.

By Karen M. Smith

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