Meet James Stugart: Ice Sculptor

By Gilian Foley

Pigeon Press (Portland, OR)

The chainsaw screeches, sending bits of water and snow in all directions. A face emerges from the ice. It’s translucent and larger than life, with sharp cheekbones and full, slightly parted lips. It’s unfinished, without a neck, ears, or even eyes, yet somehow this bare outline captures the essence of a face.

James Stugart has to slightly bend his lanky frame to reach his sculpture. Stugart guides the heavy, roaring chainsaw over the ice lightly, as if it was a paintbrush. His movements are effortless and sure; you can tell that he’s had 14 years of experience carving ice. But it’s only taken him two minutes to carve this face.

The moment that Stugart finishes carving, he looks up with a smile. He exudes a boyish quality. The 30-year-old has been making ice sculptures for nearly half his life. Stugart grew up in Fairbanks, Alaska, which he calls “the city of extremes.” In Fairbanks, it begins snowing around September and October, and the snow doesn’t melt until April. These long winters are bitterly cold; at the peak of winter temperatures generally stay between -20 and -40 degrees and rarely ever rise above zero.

“If it ever does get to zero degrees, it’s time to like, put on your tank tops, it’s so warm,” Stugart joked.

Growing up in such extreme temperatures, Stugart didn’t have some of the luxuries that we take for granted. He had to warm up his car before it could be safely driven, and had chores such as shoveling the driveway, hauling water and collecting firewood. Stugart describes this way of life as ‘sustainable living’ and believes that it causes individuals to be more hardworking.

“I think it might be a way to cope with the long, dark hours and the cold, is to try to keep yourself busy,” Stugart said. “It’s hard to live a day without working. There are always like a bunch of little chores to do. When I moved out here I was like, ‘This is such easy living!”

iceman2Stugart made his first ice sculpture in middle school. His mother signed him up for an arts camp during spring break, and Stugart chose to spend the week working with ice and glass. His first ice sculpture was a monkey.

“I was able to take him, my little monkey, home, and then we just stuck him outside!” Stugart said. “Where I come from, it’s pretty much freezing from middle of October until maybe early April. That little monkey I got in spring break, he lasted maybe a month.”

Stugart is a resourceful person; in his free time, he makes and refines many of his own carving tools. He has made many of his own knives, a custom chop saw for larger ice blocks and even a roof to block his workspace from the damaging effects sun has on ice. For Stugart, this is a hobby as well as a money-saver.

Stugart obviously takes an enormous amount of pride in his workshop, located in the garage next to his house in southeast Portland. Stugart’s workshop is small and very organized. It’s filled with tools that range from an ice maker to a walk-in freezer. He shows each one of them off with pride.

After high school, Stugart attended the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, where he earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts in sculpture, animation and drawing. He graduated in 2009 and moved to Portland to his wife Jessica the following year.

Stugart described his first two years in Portland as a struggle. He was homesick; it was hard for him to get used to the cultural differences between Fairbanks and Portland, being away from his family and friends and what he felt like was his lack of direction.

When Stugart met Steve Cox, a fellow ice-carver, things turned around for the better.

“I’m a very direction-oriented person, and it was just too much free floating for me, which caused kind of a depression,” Stugart said. “But listening to the universe, ice-carving, Steve–everything just clicked together.”

Cox, who Stugart describes as his mentor, runs a Seattle-based business called Creative Ice, where he makes custom ice carvings. Cox has been running his successful ice-carving business for 30 years. Like Stugart, Cox started his business from scratch, working out of his garage.

Cox had received calls and interest in ice sculptures from Portland, but preferred not to make the commute to deliver them. So when Cox discovered that Stugart was an ice carver here, he encouraged him to open up a business similar to Creative Ice.

“I really do love ice, and I could make a pretty good living off of it,” Stugart said. “You know, just throughout the experience of my life, just paying attention to the signs, it kind of seemed like ice carving was something I should get into.”

Stugart opened ICEovation in July of 2013. Jessica described this time as both exciting and nerve-wracking; opening a business is an investment of time, money and commitment with an unsure outcome.

“It was really neat to see him after he quit doing masonry and started doing ICEovation full-time,” Jessica said. “He was just so excited, and so grateful, to be doing something he loved doing instead of just doing something to make ends meets. It’s really neat to see him doing something that uses his skills so well. It’s stimulating for him–he seems so much more alive.”

Dan Opgenorth, a close friend of Stugart’s for many years, describes ice carving as “a very intriguing niche market.”

“I think that someone like James will succeed because of his strong work ethic, and drive to give the customer exactly what they want,” Opgenorth said. “Artists are traditionally not the best business people, but I think once the business side of ICEovation gets rolling, a strong repeat customer base will give the company more work that it can handle.”

Stugart also enjoys drawing, wood carving and animation. Now that he runs ICEovation, however, he has less time to work in these mediums.

Stugart attends networking events and works with a business coach to expand ICEovation.

“A lot of it is just word of mouth–getting the word around so people are aware of you,” Stugart said. “The first year was really slow, and this next year my business has increased tenfold.”

Much of Stugart’s business is making sculptures for parties, hotels or bars. One of the most common orders is a luge, large ice sculpture that alcohol can be poured through. Stugart makes the luges in varying sizes and designs–he recently made a luge shaped like a mermaid.

Stugart’s eyes lit up as he described his future hopes for ICEovation. Stugart aspires to eventually open his own shop and where he could make larger, more complex sculptures.

“Portland seems to be pretty good because it’s a growing city,” Stugart said. “It’s slightly aware of the ice, but it’s not like Seattle or Ohio or something, where it’s common. I’ve got to work a little harder to get people more involved in it.”

Portland’s culture surrounding ice is vastly different from that in Stugart’s hometown of Fairbanks. Stugart describes his childhood as “saturated in ice carving.” In Fairbanks, ice carvings decorated local stores for months at a time. Stugart often played in a park with his grandfather, which included slides, tunnels and a maze, all made from ice.

As a child, Stugart was also greatly inspired by the World Ice Art Competition, the largest ice carving competition in the world, which takes place in Fairbanks. People come from all around the world to carve, volunteer or simply witness the event.

Stugart has participated in the competition for the last 12 years. The event is pretty universally recognized as physically, emotionally and mentally grueling. Everything about it is extreme; the weather conditions, the proportions of the sculptures and the demands that it requires from the artists. The artists work around the clock in below-freezing temperatures.

“We’re crazy,” Stugart said. “It’s almost like this unexplainable passion. People say you get the ice-bug, you’re injected with the ice. You get hooked. Either you love it or you hate it.”

Stugart works at least 12-hour days during the competition, but once stayed up 42 hours to complete a piece. The stress and lack of sleep caused him to hallucinate; Stugart said that it felt like he was in a dream.

“There’s so much determination to finish it,” Stugart said. “It’s amazing how far you can really push your body. Ice carving is pretty much considered a sport.”

Artists enter their sculptures into either the realistic or the abstract category, where they will be judged based on different criteria. Stugart, a concept-driven artist, almost always enters in the abstract category.

“I have a hobby of psychology, and so sometimes I will have an idea, and I will base my work on that,” Stugart said. “I would describe my work as surrealism–like it’s kind of abstract, but there are many aspects that are very familiar, but they’re just piled in a way you haven’t seen before.”

When many of us think of ice, we think of the cloudy ice chips in our freezer. Stugart’s artwork doesn’t even slightly resemble that; his sculptures are almost completely clear and incredibly intricate. They exude an ethereal quality.

iceman3Stugart is particularly interested in ice’s unique feature of transparency and experiments with making sculptures on the inside, as well as the outside, of ice. Using this concept, he generated the idea for his sculpture at last year’s competition.

In last year’s competition, Stugart carved a very realistic man with visible veins inside of him. The figure was staring into what appeared to be a forest, but was actually giant eyeballs.

“Ice sculptures are really cool because it’s still relatively new,” Stugart said. “Most people aren’t to familiar with it [sculpted ice], and that’s amazing, In reality, it’s just another carving medium. It’s subtractive carving–it’s just exotic because it’s clear.”

Stugart believes that one of the most fascinating things about ice is that it is a hybrid of other materials. In some ways, ice is similar to stone–it’s heavy, bulky and very strong yet brittle–but you carve it like wood. Like glass, ice is sensitive to temperature, but it’s glued together like plexiglass.

Most wood carving tools work well on ice but some are created especially for the unique medium. Stugart uses a chainsaw for the initial carving, while chisels provide unique textures and die grinders are used to flatten the surface. He owns dozens of smaller handheld tools to add detail to his sculptures and polishes off his finished products with sandpaper.

Stugart, who describes himself as a slow carver, typically spends between three and six hours on a piece.

Ice sculptures will melt in a matter of hours when they’re left in above-freezing temperatures. Stugart says that he doesn’t mind this. He loves the process of designing and creating his sculptures. For Stugart, artwork is about the creation, not the end result.

“I’m more into the process,” Stugart said. “The end product is nice as long as I can take a nice photo, but other than that…”

When Stugart is not creating art, he enjoys cooking, playing with his dog and spending time with Jessica and their newborn son, Hendrik Robert. Hendrik was born on Valentine’s Day.

“If he is interested [in ice carving] when he’s older, I’d love to teach him,” Stugart said. “But I won’t put pressure on him to follow in my footsteps.”

All Photo Credits: Pigeon Press

About Grace Masback

Grace Masback, 17, aspires to give voice to the voiceless and holds the modest ambition of becoming the voice of Gen Z. Frustrated by the dearth of impactful platforms for teen journalists, she founded WANT, a news, sports, and entertainment website that aggregates the best in high school journalism from school newspapers and teen bloggers around the world (www.wantnewsforteens.com).

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