Chris Foltz knew something was wrong when he saw sparks starting to fly from the teeth of the chainsaw as he attempted to carve his first animal, a fish, out of a block of ice 18 years ago.
“That was my first lesson: you can’t turn the chainsaw in a curving motion inside an ice block,” he said.
Foltz has come a long way since that ill-fated first attempt at sculpting in ice.
When he’s not teaching students butchering techniques and other culinary skills at the Oregon Coast Culinary Institute in Coos Bay, Foltz is on the lookout for new recruits for the extracurricular, ice sculpting course and team he teaches on campus.
“I had only used a chainsaw maybe once or twice in my dad’s backyard. So using a power tool like that on something that I’ve never even thought of doing was pretty intimidating,” said Nick Graham, a Navy veteran and Oregon Coast Culinary Institute student who successfully carved a star to win a spot on the team.
And Foltz still finds time to compete on the professional ice sculpting circuit. As news station KEZI previously reported, he recently won first place in a team event for a 16-foot-tall sculpture carved at the 2022 World Ice Art Championships in Fairbanks, Alaska.
Foltz and his three teammates spent five days carving and assembling “Thunderstruck,” a 40,000 pound sculpture of a warrior clutching a spear, mounted on an elephant ready for battle.
They used used chainsaws, chisels and other tools, along with water to “weld” or bind blocks of ice together, while working in temperatures that hovered around minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit.
“That’s a super comfortable temperature,” Foltz said. “You don’t have to worry about the ice at all. It’s super strong. It welds very easily,” he added.
But ice carving is not for the faint of heart and just one mistake can lead to dangerous disaster when constructing SUV-sized objects out of a material sensitive to temperature and vibration.
“A piece that weighed 800 pounds fell down and hit the base of the sculpture 10 feet below and shattered onto the ground,” Foltz recalled during a mistake he made years ago while operating a power tool that sent acoustic vibrations through a block of ice he was carving. The giant block fell inches from where he was standing.
Foltz took four of his ice sculpting students with him to the two-week-long competition in Alaska, including Nick Graham, who returned for a second year to practice and train with Foltz.
“The day that we left to go, I believe it was 40 or 50 degrees, and then we got off the plane and it was negative 30 and I was wearing a sweatshirt,” Graham said.
He got acclimated quickly while working for up to 12 hours a day, along with his fellow students, to bring to life physically demanding works of ice art, including a 6-foot-tall walrus.
“It’s really just important, making sure that you’re keeping yourself cool enough and not overheating because as soon as you sweat, you’re miserable,” he said.
In Fairbanks, Graham also got a chance to put his ice carving skills to the test by competing against others for the first time.
He paired up with Foltz in a doubles event, finishing third place for a 10-foot tall, 10-foot wide bust of an elephant that earned him a medal and a $700 cash prize.
Graham said he prefers realism over abstraction when taking chainsaw to ice.
“I’m not nearly as creative as Chris when it comes to abstract things, but I’m getting better. And I would hope to even be half as good as what he’s at now.”
Graham plans to continue competing and sculpting his icy menagerie of elephants, swans and other animals as part of a future catering business which he hopes to launch after finishing culinary school.
After 15 years of professional ice sculpting and decades spent working in professional kitchens around the globe, Foltz still gets excited about new designs to carve and opportunities to nurture emerging talent in sub-zero temperatures.
“The idea of taking a student that’s never used a chainsaw and getting them to a third place win... that’s my goal. Can I take a student that has the aptitude for it, can I guide them through that process to obtain that level of success?”
You can listen to the interview with Chris Foltz and Nick Graham by pressing the play arrow on the audio above.