It was over ninety degrees in New Orleans, but ice sculptor, Dawson List, was dressed as if in the arctic tundra. The insulated jacket, water-proof boots, heavy gloves, and multiple layers beneath are absolutely essential…for the long days Dawson spends chopping, chiseling, and grinding ice into art. “Ideally you want to carve the ice in an environment that is around fifteen to twenty degrees, Dawson said as we entered the industrial walk-in freezer that serves as his studio. There was ice everywhere: stacked in 300 pound blocks waiting to be carved, shavings that looked like fresh fallen snow covered the floor, and finished sculptures were wrapped in thermal sleeping bags to prevent damage.
The freezer, however, is not where an ice sculpture begins,Dawson explained. f it’s a high-end sculpture, not a swan, it is drawn out; the design is plotted out on a computer. The template is printed out actual size and placed on the ice. Then you cut through the paper into the ice. I use a chainsaw, angle grinder, abrasive buffing tools, and chisels. There is really no end to the variety of tools you can use to make an ice sculpture.This process works fine when Dawson is dealing with small scale sculptures. When working on larger pieces, like the twenty five foot high sculpture of a Native-American warrior, for which Dawson’s team took second place in the World Ice Art Championships, the process is a little more complex.
In larger pieces you have to have several printed templates, placed next to each other,Dawson said. For the larger sculptures, I often have to melt two pieces of ice together. When melting two pieces together, I use a heavy square of milled aluminum and an iron for a heat source. Using this method, I can take an arm, and stick it onto a torso: It’s a vertical weld. Also, from time to time, a piece of your sculpture will break off. I use the same process to replace a broken section.
The danger of cracks and damage to the ice sculpture was increased during the six days Dawson’s team was in Alaska working on the twenty five foot Native American warrior. In addition to the extra stress put on the ice by the magnitude of the sculpture, Dawson’s team had to deal with the extreme cold of the Alaskan nights. It’s not the colder the better with the ice, Dawson explained. Ideally you want to carve around 15 to 20 degrees. When you get down to ten below, you’l start having real problems. Your pieces won’t freeze together tight. Extreme cold shocks the ice, making it more fragile. The ice shards become sharper, your tools freeze up, and it becomes a lot more dangerous.
Before Dawson faced the dangers of carving through the harsh Alaskan nights, before you could find his work displayed around the world, he was working in a hotel in New Mexico, during his summer breaks from college. “I used to watch the chef carve ice sculptures. One day he got sick of me watching and decided to put me to work. Initially, I did the carvings for Sunday brunches. I could do whatever I wanted as long as it wasn’t objectionable. It gave me a chance to practice and the money to start buying my own tools.
Throughout the years, Dawson, who is in large part self taught, sought to increase his skills and elevate his work from commercial to fine art. I have educated my self in anatomy, sculpture, and design, but among the greatest teachers is competition. You see what your competition has done and you try to figure out how they did it. You also learn a great deal from your team-mates. I was on a team with Junichi Nakamura, who has won the World Ice Art Championships and the Cultural Arts Olympics, and he taught me a lot.
Dawson has taken what he has learned over the years and used it to create some of the most innovative pieces of ice sculpture to date. As of late, Dawson has been working with neon frozen inside of his sculptures. Most of the time, you have to light an ice sculpture from the outside. With the neon, it lights itself. It creates a sense of disbelief. People will come up and ask: Is that ice? That is the best compliment an ice sculptor can receive.
The worst insult any artist can receive is What is it? Dawson has found ways to avoid that question. People are the most challenging, Dawson explains. No model wants to stand in the freezer for hours, so I photograph people. I recently created two sculptures: A mermaid, which my wife Aimee modeled for, and a child building a sandcastle which is based on my ten year old daughter Savannah.
One might wonder how Dawson can invest so much time into a piece of art that is bound to melt or evaporate. The answer is photography. I’ve always been attracted to pictures of ice and ice sculpture. You have a limited amount of time with the actual sculpture. That ice sculptures are temporary is the reason people are amazed by them. They attract your attention and they hold your attention, because they will soon be gone.