"Ice Man Ski" carves fleeting works of art

Jan 22, 2016

Seafood Ice Bars with a 250 lb. golf ball sculpture.
Credit Michael Kowalski

The practice of transforming ice into something beautiful has been around for thousands of years and continues to dazzle today. Eastern North Carolina artist Michael ‘Ski’ Kowalski has carved his own niche into this impressive world of sculpting. Sarah Finch has more on Ski’s creative process and the magic of this fleeting art form.

Today, only a few people make a living as ice sculptors. Using expensive chainsaws, and a bevy of hand tools, they craft intricate works of art from 300-pound blocks of ice. The trade requires strength, endurance, and an engineering skill-set, as well as artistic talent. Forty-seven year old Michael Kowalski, better known as Ice Man ‘Ski’, has always had this passion for the creative.

“I have a degree in graphic design, but I couldn’t do graphic design. Why? I can’t see one dimension. I see 3 dimensional. And I gotta feel what I’m creating."

The search for his preferred medium led Kowalski to study steel and clay sculpture, artistic concrete and 3-D design in Charlotte. After earning a degree in graphic design at Central Piedmont Community College, he put it to work as a Post Office employee. But he was miserable.

“It’s a great job, it’s a great benefit package, but I had to do something else.”

That something else showed up out of the blue and he still remembers it to this day.

“The first time I got into ice sculpting was February of 2001. It was a brief encounter, more or less a divine intervention.”

Outside of his day job in Charlotte, Kowalski had been working on some recycled steel sculptures. One day while putting them up around town, a stranger approached him. 

“I hear this voice saying what are your other mediums. And I look at the gentleman, and I said well anything 3D; steel, concrete, you know, clay is one of my favorites. And he goes, would you like to try ice. Sure. And went to his shop the next day and called in sick for three months straight.”

Ski carving an Ice Couch
Credit Michael Kowalski

Long story short, he was hooked. That very first day Ski tried ice carving he says was like love at first sight. It is somewhat of an exotic art. Firstly, one can’t just carve ice anywhere—or with ordinary tools.

Kowalski starts with a 300 pound block of ice that measures 40 inches tall, 20 inches wide and 10 inches thick. These special ice blocks are made with a Clinebell machine which forms a crystal clear product.

Before he puts a block of ice up on the table in his walk-in freezer, Ski draws a template for each customer request. It’s then frozen onto the ice so he can begin carving the basic shapes with a chainsaw.

“And then I most likely will probably take a die-grinder that will have what we call a burr-bit, a bit that’s got a bunch of spikes on it. Then we’ll start grinding it down. Once I get it ground down to a certain shape and figure, then I’ll use an angle-grinder, or more or less like a really big sander. And then I start shaping more to get a smoother surface.”

This year Ski went through 150 blocks of ice. Each piece is different depending on how it stands, or how thin or thick it is. But Kowalski’s location in eastern North Carolina also makes a difference in what he is carving.

Ice Bar and liquor luge for New Year's Eve party
Credit Michael Kowalski / icesensationsofwilm.wordpress.com

“I get a lot of requests for liquor luges. Where it’s a block of ice that’s got a channel down it that people take shots of liquor off of it. That’s the most common because I’m in a beach town, college town.”

He carves decorative centerpieces, ice bars, and many more figures at his ice studio in Wilmington.

I also do a lot of sea creatures, marlin, sea horses, which I absolutely love. Doing sea-creatures, they just have a certain unique beauty. Doing a Marlin, I can see and feel those bumps or the smoothness of that fish.”

Whether elaborate or simple, Kowalski says no job is too overwhelming. Including the largest, a 75 foot long and 20 foot high ice bridge for a food show.

“Recently for Cape Fear Community College, I did the 10 foot flower tower for their grand opening. At the same time, we did a 15 foot long ice bar that was 10 feet high. Also an ice lounge which had an ice couch with furs on it and an ice table.”

Ski's ice sculptures of an angel fish and a clam.
Credit Michael Kowalski

All of these are created in Kowalski’s walk-in freezer on his property and then taken to their respective event locations. Transporting ice is a delicate and risky job, but he has a couple of old-tricks up his sleeve.

“I was taught to wrap your ice sculptures in sleeping bags. Whereas a sleeping bag keeps you warm from the cold, it keeps the ice cold from the warm. It’s insulation. And you’re protecting it from the elements. When we’re walking out of that freezer with the ice sculpture, as long as that ice does not touch warm air, or any air at all, it’ll stay frosty in that sleeping bag.”

Ice sculptures evoke a fascination, because of the artistry and technique that go into making them, but also because of our knowledge that these creations are not permanent. In most cases, a sculpture lasts only six to eight hours at room temperature before losing definition and reverting to its core elements – ice and water.

Kowalski says he prefers the short life span of an ice-sculpture over other art forms.

Large seafood circular display carved from ice.
Credit Michael Kowalski

“Well see that’s the oxymoron of it.  I did a steel sculpture for a friend of mine, and one of the pieces I welded on there broke off. Well now I had to make time to go fix it. That’s the one thing about being an ice sculptor, once I put it up, I set it and I forget it.”

To keep his skills sharp, Kowalski has competed in numerous ice sculpting competitions. Just recently he did a 30 block ice carving display at the Alamosa Ice Festival in Colorado. Last year’s theme was based on the movie ‘Frozen’ and this year’s theme will be Star Wars. 

“Being with other sculptors in the world of ice-sculpting has inspired me to be better. With one of the world’s biggest ice-carving companies up in Canada, I’ve done ice festivals where we did a 100 block ice maze with another 100 blocks of sea-creatures.”

One of his proudest moments was being named the First Vice President of the National Ice Carvers Association, which organizes events around the world and trains new sculptors in the art of ice-carving. Having worked on ice for over 15 years, Kowalski says he just wants to be better every day at what he does.

“I love what I do. I love creating ice sculptures. I love making my customers happy. I can’t see myself doing anything else.”

Ice Bar created for a Founders Gala event
Credit Michael Kowalski / icesensationsofwilm.wordpress.com

Kowalski interprets ice-sculpting as a dying art form. Like many things being replaced by the precision of computers, ice is no different. Nowadays the ice carving profession is heading towards computer numerical control (CNC) machines. Despite CNC’s influence, Kowalski continues to carve what he loves with his own two hands. He says this is what he lives for – to create.

“Being ADD, its great not doing something so repetitively. That’s one thing I didn’t like about the Post office. It was the same thing day after day. In my world now, every week is different, every day is different. Which it’s more stimulating to me.”

Ice-sculptures are intricate to make and even more striking to see, since they embody a quality of art that is temporary. You have to enjoy it in the moment. Besides, as Kowalski points out, if ice sculptures never melted, no one would want to commission another.