Ice sculptures are coming back to events, says artist Nate Johnson. The co-owner of Johnson Studios, which opened in 2010, sold his first sculpture back in 1989. In his busy season (from Mother’s Day to New Year’s Eve), he can carve up to 150 blocks a week. “For a while it was a cliché thing with many companies giving clients menus to order. But we’re trying to get away from that,” he says. “We encourage every client to give us an idea of who they are and what interests they have so we can design a special piece for every event.”
Lately, that has included 16-foot portraits of professional athletes, a complete replica of the Chicago skyline, even a life-size pug. Working out of a 4,000-square-foot warehouse near Midway Airport, where he regularly uses chainsaws, ice picks, chisels and blowtorches to get the desired effect, the job is always exciting, even if sometimes it’s short-lived. “It broke my heart when the first sculpture I ever made melted,” Johnson says, “but by now I’m used to it.”
ILM+E: How did you first get started making ice sculptures?
NJ: In 1989, I was working as a chef in Fort Wayne, Indiana. We were doing a banquet and someone in the party requested an ice sculpture, but nobody in town made them. I had been studying art at the time and figured I could do it. It took me eight hours. I didn’t even have a chainsaw, I used a bow saw made from wood and wood chisels, but it came out good. I ended up making ice sculptures every weekend until eventually I quit cooking.
ILM+E: What makes the best ice sculptures?
NJ: We pride ourselves on being able to make really good portraits. Objects that have a good silhouette work great, too, so you can tell what the design is long into the evening—at room temperature, detail will be visible for four hours. We also have a special process for logos where we engrave them in the center of the block of ice so it will be there at the end of the night.
ILM+E: What does a planner need to have for setting up the sculpture?
NJ: Nothing. We bring everything to the venue. You’d be amazed, but a standard banquet table will hold a 150-200-pound ice sculpture just fine. We bring a tray and drainage, and guarantee the floor and table won’t get wet. We also bring battery-operated LED lights that can be switched to any color and can put decoration around the sculpture. The planner just has to tell us where it will be staged, and we’ll come up with the design and deliver it so they don’t have to worry about a thing. At the end of night, you can just put it outside and it will be gone by morning. It’s the easiest décor.