Fire out of Ice: Artist wins ice-carving competition with fire-breathing dragon

While ice carving may seem like a delicate enterprise — a patient art form executed with a well-aimed chisel and a gentle tap from a tack hammer — it’s anything but.

When six ice carvers faced off at the Fire and Ice winter festival in Waynesville last weekend, they came bearing chainsaws, zip saws, industrial sanders and rotary tools with case upon case of special drill attachments. Their attire alone was a giveaway to the heavy duty nature of their work: full length rubber aprons and safety glasses to guard against flying ice chips and ear muffs to block out the noise from their saws.

Carvers had just three hours to transform a giant block of ice to a sculpture. First place went to Travis Dale, who traveled from Charlotte to compete at the Fire and Ice festival, for his crowd-pleasing, fire breathing dragon.

Professional ice carvers such as Dale revel in free-form competitions where they can afford to get creative. An ice carving displayed at a wedding or banquet has to hold up for hours, retaining its basic form even as it melts, and thus calls for more blockish forms. But in competition, carvers can push the limits of their art form, like the thin towering wings and soaring arched tail of Dale’s dragon.

“This is for the minute. It is built for the spectator,” Dale said.

There’s risk involved when going for the gold, however, and as a result the evening wasn’t without casualties. Gravity got the best of one carver attempting to sculpt a penguin. Both wings ended up in a slushy heap at the base of the statue before it could be judged.

Any ice carver worth his salt has been in similar shoes, Dale said. Sometimes, a broken piece can be reattached by blasting it with “freeze spray” while holding it in place. Ice carvers buy the aerosol cans by the case load.

Dale used the stuff to attach the plume of fire coming out of his dragon’s mouth. As the statue began to melt, the joint would thaw and it would be the first thing to fall, he said.

The festival was Dale’s first crack at a dragon. He came with a life-sized blue print and traced it onto the ice before he started.

Dale was a country club chef by trade when he got into ice carving.

“Working at a country club, we did a lot of weddings and banquets and parties, and you start watching other people do it,” he said.

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