When most of us see a hunk of ice, we steer clear of it. But there are some guys who can't wait to get their hands on the stuff.
Put ice in front of them, and they rush toward it, chain saws and chisels in hand. Quickly they transform squarish blocks into leaping fish, swooping birds or graceful columns.
They are ice sculptors, and in addition to being unusually dexterous, they have unusually positive attitudes toward frozen water and cold weather.
Vivat Hongpong, who crafts icy center pieces for hotels in Atlantic City and Baltimore, said, flat out, that ice is better than chocolate. Sculpting a figure out of chocolate takes forever, he said, but with ice you can make a carving in 45 minutes and it will last for hours.
Just how many hours depends on the temperature. On a 39-degree winter day in Baltimore like the one last Saturday, ice carving can last for 10 to 12 hours. Hongpong and six other sculptors were at the National Aquarium that day for an ice-carving competition held outside.
It was sunny but cold, and a stiff wind required normal people to wear coats. Perfect day for ice, said Hongpong, who won the competition. Nonetheless, as a precaution, Hongpong moved his block of ice to a shady spot before he started working on it. Even in the winter, an ice sculptor worries about sunshine.
Hongpong lives in Absecon, N.J., where he works as a free-lance ice sculptor, commuting into Baltimore to chip away at ice for the Stouffer Harborplace Hotel. The North American climate is much kinder to ice, Hongpong said, than that of his native country of Thailand. There, he said, ice sculpture melts in four hours.
An ice sculptor can work inside or outside, said Emory Boger, a Baltimore free-lancer whose large carvings are often seen at receptions and dinners at the Harbor Court hotel. But even though they have learned to work with a roof over their heads, ice men prefer the outdoors.
After years of working in hot hotel kitchens it is a relief to work in fresh if sometimes frigid air, said Bob Roberts, who finished second in Saturday's competition. He operates a Baltimore-area enterprise called Hot Ice, but before that, Roberts was a chef in hotels in Baltimore, Flint, Mich.; Columbus Ohio; and Orlando, Fla.
Other ice sculptors I spoke with also seemed to be cold-weather types.
Tim Barger, executive chef at the Omni and third-place winner in the competition, was introduced to ice work at a hotel in Lake Geneva, Wis., a town familiar with long winters. From Lake Geneva he went to the Parker House in Boston, another chilly town, where he continued chipping away. In one notably cold Boston winter, Barger sculpted forms of surfers out of the ice. The occasion was the meeting of a group of Bostonians who were going swimming, outdoors, in the middle of winter.
Baltimore doesn't get enough snow to suit Barger so he goes on vacation looking for more. Not long ago, for instance, he went skiing in Lake Tahoe. While he was there, he couldn't resist changing mediums and whipping out a few snow sculptures.
"You just form the snow into what you want, and mist it," said Barger who added that Tahoe has ideal, heavy snow for sculpting.
Ice sculptors may not like warmth, but they can work in it. The only kind of weather condition they dread is is rain.
"Rain," said Michael Palombo, "is your worst enemy." The problem is that the falling water melts the frozen water. Palombo, a chef at Washington's Ramada Renaissance hotel, said he became familiar with ice sculpture as a kid growing up in New York state. There, he said, instead of shrinking from cold weather, the residents celebrate with winter festivals.
Winter is the peak of the ice-carving competition, said Palombo, who plans to play host to a large ice carving contest at his Washington hotel in February.
Palombo also told me about the National Ice Carving Association, which oversees ice carving contests.
Not surprisingly, the headquarters of the group is in Burr Ridge, Ill., southwest of Chicago, an area where any wintertime temperature above zero is regarded as balmy.
When I called the association headquarters, a woman told me about two big annual ice carving contests. One is in Plymouth, Mich., another in Detroit.
Both are held in January, outdoors.