Local, world-class ice carver finds success in simplicity

By: Robert Guttersohn | Macomb Township Chronicle | Published January 30, 2013

 From left, Ted Wakar, of Canton, and Jim Bur, now a Macomb resident, stand in front of a 17-foot tall Praying Mantis they sculpted from ice during a competition in Fairbanks, Ala., in 1995. Ice carving has taken Bur and his brother-in-law Wakar around the world.

From left, Ted Wakar, of Canton, and Jim Bur, now a Macomb resident, stand in front of a 17-foot tall Praying Mantis they sculpted from ice during a competition in Fairbanks, Ala., in 1995. Ice carving has taken Bur and his brother-in-law Wakar around the world.

Photo provided

MACOMB TOWNSHIP — While attending Wayne State University in the 1980s as an art student, Jim Bur, a world-class ice carver now living in Macomb, befriended a classmate struggling financially to put himself through school.

Some days, Bur recalled, his classmate was forced to draw on a paper bag because he couldn’t afford the sketching paper. And when certain drawings required instruments he didn’t have, the classmate found ways around the predicament. Despite the shortcomings, “His drawings were beautiful,” Bur said.

A decade later, while competing in an ice-carving competition in Fairbanks, Ala., Bur, with his brother-in-law Ted Wakar, was forced to use the same impromptu thinking his classmate used. The morning of the competition, the two realized they weren’t given the amount of ice that they had planned. So instead of building the Cinderella carriage they had practiced, they quickly decided to construct a 17-foot-tall praying mantis. Bur and Wakar won that competition.

Bur believes the lesson of simplicity he learned from his WSU classmate is what has driven his success in the international ice-carving circuit. While other carvers surround themselves with the latest electronic tools to add more texture or detail to the sculptures, Bur considers himself a purist of the trade, using only chainsaws, chisels and gouges on his pieces.

“I don’t want to trip over tools,” he said. “I don’t need to carry all that junk.”

That philosophy has carried Bur and Wakar’s team, Frozen Images, from competitions in Plymouth to Alaska and Japan over the last 30 years. Along the way, they’ve racked up trophies, becoming the only foreign team to win an ice-carving contest in Japan. When Bur and Wakar were at their peak, between 1994 and 1998, they competed in 18 competitions. They were sculpting together so often, they completed projects with very little verbal communication between the two of them.

“It ended up kind of like an orchestrated dance,” Wakar described.

But of all the international competitions won, only one left the team in the black after all their expenses, meaning Bur’s passion was only a part-time endeavor.

Although they still design ice sculptures for various events, like Madison Heights’ tree-lighting ceremony in December and this year’s Winter Blast in Detroit, the team doesn’t compete as often as they did in the 1990s. Back then, Bur and Wakar had to find time from work to travel, then spend days designing the sculpture first on paper then with Styrofoam blocks. On the day of the competition, they’d have to haul heavy blocks of ice to be manipulated into the shape they conjured earlier.

“It really can wear on you over time,” Bur said.

Bur, now 46, grew up in Livonia with Wakar, 51. In the early ’80s, Wakar, a chef who was already competing in local competitions, introduced Bur to ice sculpting.

“For me to include Jim, knowing he was artistic and saw things that people who don’t partake in the arts can’t, it was a necessary thing,” Wakar said. Bur, at that time, was already studying industrial design at WSU and had experience shaping wood and metals. “For me, it was just learning to how use a new medium,” Bur said. “It became a really fun way to express what we saw.”

The two competed as solo artists before merging. “As artists, we each have our different styles and educational backgrounds,” Wakar said. “I like the way we blended that together.”

They won their first of many team competitions in 1994 at the Plymouth Ice Festival.

“When (The Plymouth Ice Festival) was in its heyday in the ’90s, they had years where over three-quarters of a million came through that town,” Bur said.

He said, in 1996, there were so many bodies packed in the small park where the festival is held that, despite it being 20-degree weather, the ice being sculpted wouldn’t stay frozen. “There were just that many bodies,” he said. “It was a massive event.”

They moved on from Plymouth to compete in other states and countries. They won a competition in Alaska in 1995 with their praying mantis and became, in 1996, they earned their trophy in Japan. Bur says they won that competition because they entered it with little expectations for winning.

“Our goal over there was just to learn,” Bur said. “So we had no expectations for anything. We were just very relaxed.”

After competing in an event held in conjunction with the 1998 Winter Olympics, they decided to take a year off.

“We were literally exhausted,” Bur said. “It was almost a year and half of our lives dedicated to the (Olympic) event.”

One year turned into nine. They continued doing local shows here and there, but did not do another competition until 2007, again in Japan. Despite the slowdown, they still see years of competing in their future and have hundreds of designs they haven’t yet touched. Even if Bur never again competed, he says that he’s learned a life’s worth of lessons from 30 years of manipulating ice into art.

“I can easily relate something from work to something I’ve done with a chainsaw in my hand,” Bur said. “It’s all the same, no matter what you are doing. The lessons are the same.”