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World champion ice carver demos at festive event

Sculptor makes his mark at Madison tree lighting

December 5, 2012

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During the lighting ceremony at Madison Heights City Hall Nov. 26, a crowd watches as ice carver Jim Bur, of Macomb Township, freestyles a reindeer sculpture. Bur and his brother-in-law, Ted Wakar, of Canton, are the only non-Japanese team to ever win the world championship in Asahikawa, Japan, in the event’s 52-year history.

MADISON HEIGHTS — At the tree lighting in Madison Heights Nov. 26, there were bright lights, hot cocoa, music, Santa, Mrs. Claus and a pair of real reindeer.

And across from them was another reindeer taking shape out of solid ice, sliced and diced by world-class ice carver Jim Bur.

“Ice is always changing,” said Bur, a Macomb Township resident. “It’s directly affected by all of the weather factors: temperature, wind, sun, rain — every one of those has a profound impact on how you can work the ice.”

Too cold, and it’s brittle and breaks. Too warm, and it’s soft and won’t freeze well. Direct sunlight causes splinters and cracks to show, and high wind evaporates the ice, losing detail. Ideally, he’d have 15 degrees, overcast and no wind, but that is rare. For the lighting ceremony, he said, it was too warm — even though everyone was freezing.

Still, after nearly 30 years of carving and many accolades and awards, Bur knows how to work the ice, skillfully shaping the block in great silvery sprays, wielding 14-inch electric chainsaws and different chisels and drill bits.

“I can wing a one-block display piece — you can tell me you need a widget, and I can come up with that in the ice pretty quickly,” Bur said.

And so it was at the lighting ceremony: The powerful musculature of a reindeer’s side profile soon emerged from the ice, followed by a lively face and jagged antlers.

Bur caught the carving bug from his brother-in-law, Ted Wakar, of Canton, owner/operator of Frozen Images. Wakar’s business makes ice sculptures for events, including banquets, weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs and more. 

Wakar is also a chef by trade. Ice carving started with chefs turning the ice blocks at lavish dinner parties into sculpted centerpieces. Now it’s part of the culinary curriculum at colleges everywhere. Wakar even teaches it at Schoolcraft College.

Bur, meanwhile, has a degree in industrial design and works in marketing/licensing. Both men are artistically inclined — drawing, sculpting, painting — and together they form an ice-carving duo whose different skills serve them well.

So well, in fact, that they are the only non-Japanese team to ever win the two-man team world championship in Asahikawa, Japan. They won in 1996 and participated three times in all. The event is now in its 52nd year.

All told, they have won more than 20 team competitions together, and 30-plus individual competitions between the two of them. They took part in the Olympic Culture and Arts Festival at the Nagano Winter Olympics in 1998. They’ve also won events across Michigan, the U.S. and Canada.

For the world championship in Asahikawa, their winning entry was inspired by the Art Deco sculptures of the 1930s, in particular the works of sculptor Ferdinand Preiss.

The piece featured a delicate female dancer in a flamboyant dress, with a flowing skirt and open sleeves. Standing 9 feet 8 inches tall — one inch below the competition’s height limit — the piece was full of kinetic energy, conveying movement as the woman appeared to gracefully dance between several free-form arches that created a sense of space with the ice available.

“When we carve, even if it’s not a human figure, we still want to have an element of motion,” Bur said. “Anyone can take a template and cut out a shape, but to bring that to the third dimension and add the feeling of motion — that’s where you engage the viewer.”   

Another example is a piece they created in Alaska. Originally they had planned to do Cinderella’s carriage, but when the ice turned out thinner than expected, Bur and Wakar did the next most logical thing — a praying mantis. Naturally.

The piece was composed of many parts, a number of them carved separately and lodged or frozen into place. The arms and claws, which appear to clench and unclench with barely restrained power, were slotted into notches on the torso in the main ice block; the antenna, meanwhile, were fitted into holes in the head.

“There’s almost a natural, living property to ice, and we like to convey that,” Wakar said. “Every piece is original. Even if two sculptors choose a similar theme, like a swan, each piece is unique to the sculptor. Even piece to piece, very seldom do I do anything exactly like the one before.”

Bur and Wakar pay close attention to each piece from all four sides, all of which are fair game in competitive judging. They work on the top of the piece as well, since some judges will climb a ladder to get a view from above.

At the end of the day, the ice melts and turns back to water — an eventuality every ice carver must accept.

“My brother-in-law (Wakar) looks at it like a floral arrangement: beautiful when you put them together, and then they slowly wilt and change and reach a point where they’re no longer functional, and you throw them away,” Bur said. “My view is simpler: You can’t keep them forever.”

This has its advantages if you sell ice sculptures for a living, he said. Unlike a painting that is bought once and stuck on a wall forever, ice sculptures are disposable art that people will buy again and again.

Bur and Wakar believe ice carving is picking up traction as a competitive outdoor sport and gaining appreciation as an art form. In the last 25 years, more and more cities have been including ice carving in their winter activities to generate foot traffic in towns and help businesses after the Christmas rush.

“I think some places were looking to bring people back out of that cabin-fever state, to come out for hot chocolate and see the town,” Wakar said.

It helps the carvers avoid cabin fever, themselves.

“It does require a certain level of fortitude to stay out in the cold for hours,” Bur said, “but on the flip side, I love that cold, fresh air, and in the winter when people find themselves holed up at home, for me it’s my completely unique way to get my hands dirty, express myself artistically, and be outside at the same time.”

And though ice carving requires patience and practice to master, it’s more accessible than one may think — and more rewarding.

“It creates a true icebreaker — pun intended — in conversing with people,” Bur said, “and for any artists looking for a unique medium, it’s a phenomenal extension.”

For more information about Frozen Images, visit

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