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This article was published 20/7/2018 (512 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Two weekends ago, John Wade faced one of his toughest challenges.
He delivered one of his ice sculptures to a pool party celebrating the 20th birthday of a client’s daughter. The problem was the temperature was 33 C.
Wade had chiselled what he calls a "champagne holder," an art deco pedestal that held unpopped champagne bottles in angled pockets on its sides.
But while he guarantees his ice sculptures will last from six to eight hours indoors, all bets are off when its 33 degrees at poolside.
The iceman cometh. Wade is Winnipeg’s only commercial ice sculptor, at least as far as he knows, and proof Manitobans never tire of their ice no matter the season. Wade operates a local enterprise that’s existed for more than three decades in the city.
He’s carved ice sculptures for birthday parties, anniversaries, weddings, socials, receptions, and many corporate events, often integrating a company logo into his designs. He’s carved for the Concordia Hospital Foundation’s 35th Anniversary, the opening of the local Audi Car Dealership, police conventions, an indigenous achievement awards event, and the Winnipeg Blue Bomber Legacy Dinners.
"My busiest day is Mother’s Day. All the lobbies. Plus the servings rooms," he said.
His parents should have known something was off. As a youngster, he would build weird and twisted snowmen in the front yard. There were three-headed monsters and gruesomely mutilated snowmen faces.
He went into culinary school and caught work in commercial kitchens. A relative would send him photos from the serving rooms in Las Vegas hotels and Wade marvelled at the ice sculptures in the background.
Culinary skill and ice sculpting have gone hand in glove at least since the Second World War when a Japanese prisoner of war in Germany, upon his release, incorporated it into his cooking. Its used today in seafood or fruit platters. Culinary schools today often spend a class or two on ice sculpting.
Flash forward to Wade’s meeting with local master ice sculptor, Larry MacFarlane. MacFarlane, also a commercial chef, started his ice sculpting business called Krystal Dreams Ice Sculptures in the late 1980s.
Wade describes the first time he met MacFarlane three decades ago. "It was one of those moments where you meet someone, shake hands, sit down and talk for five minutes, and we’ve been friends for life ever since."
Wade learned his craft helping MacFarlane. Then eight years ago MacFarlane was looking to get out. He still carves today but competitively and entered contests in Russia and Ottawa the past year.
Wade had just spent $70,000 on home renovations and, besides, he had a job now working as an educational assistant in the culinary department at Tech Voc High School. (MacFarlane and wife, Jackie, now run the Birds Hill Provincial Park campground, store and beach snack houses, and were profiled in the Free Press on Aug. 4, 2017.)
But opportunity knocked so he took over the business and enough equipment to get a start. Two years after the purchase, Wade quit his day job to sculpt full-time under a new company name, John Wade Ice Sculptures. (It will soon be renamed again as Ice Sculptor at Play, and in new premises on Mission Street in St. Boniface Industrial Park.)
That was the beginning. Wade ran it as a sideline, working evenings and weekends, but two years later quit his day job and ran it full time. He started with one chainsaw, a two-foot long chisel, two hand chisels, and an ice block maker.
Today, his walls and worktable are packed with chisels, chainsaws, ice tongs, and die grinders that look like reciprocating saws except for the bits. Chisels alone can cost up to $1,500.
Typical chainsaw chains come with hooked teeth that are designed to whisk the sawdust away. But that doesn’t work with ice sculpting and instead makes a rough cut and cracks the ice.
So Wade has to spend three or four hours filing off every hooked tooth. The various chainsaw chains hang like Mardi Gras necklaces on nails above his workbench.
Ice sprays out behind the chainsaw in a symmetrical plume while he works.
"I really have a lot of passion for what I do," said Wade, now 56. "Basically, sculpting is you’re just taking off bits and pieces you don’t like."
His biggest installation was with MacFarlane: 38 blocks of ice for a Queen’s Jubilee sculpture, marking the 60th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth’s ascension to the throne, on the grounds of the Legislative Building. The installation was two-and-a-half tonnes of ice, measuring 10 feet high by 10 feet wide.
His average job is about a block-and-a-half of ice and retails for $450. He tries to get about $300 per slab of ice but there are pricing variables.
The slabs are so crystal clear you could watch TV through one. The trick is Wade keeps two pumps circulating the water while it freezes. This eliminates clouding, called frost cores. "White ice is deemed ugly," Wade said.
While carving a swan during the Free Press visit, he slices a block off the top. "Normally, I would just toss it on the floor but I look at this lovely clear ice and I think it would go nicely in my scotch," he said, and stows it in his walk-in freezer. He’s sold fractured ice to bartenders for $20 a box.
Ice blocks out of the ice block maker are 40 inches high by 20 inches wide by 10 inches thick, and weigh about 450 pounds. They are chipped down to about 300 pounds by the time Wade is finished.
He transports his finished blocks in cases insulated with styrofoam, like a cooler, and puts them together on site.
He gets a lot of business through local event planners like Events by Emma, Soiree Event Planner, Decorations by Rick Mayhew.
One of his jobs was to make the centrepieces for the Panam Clinic Foundation fundraiser honouring Rick Hansen. Wade made 54 miniature pedestals, with the Rick Hansen Foundation logo in the centre, and lit up by a light puck beneath each one. He uses small coloured floodlights on larger pieces.
One art piece that’s really taken off is the "slide shooter," where a bartender pours a drink into the top of the ice sculpture and it winds colourfully through a tube into your shot glass below.
For a police convention a few years ago attended by robbery investigators across the country, Wade was asked to sculpt two nine-millimetre handguns with shooter slides winding through them. You poured the liquor into the cocked trigger and retrieved it chilled from the barrel. For another event, he made a woman’s stiletto shoe with a diamond toe. The bartender poured the drink into the toe and patrons collect their refreshment out the weapon-like heel.
He’s made slide shooters in the shapes of ice guitars, trumpets, violins and accordions; pineapples, palm trees, a martini glass and a syringe (for a party of physicians); fish, lions, polar bears, and eagles; and, cough, cough, the human anatomy, say no more.
Multi-tiered seafood or fruit tables have been another hot seller.
Wade says party goers will stand around an ice carving the way they would an open fire.
His son, Willie, 16, studying graphic arts, got him a sweatshirt for Christmas with a design he made: the silhouette of a man and a chainsaw admiring his work carving in block letters: "Ice Carver at Play."
The logo and name will be Wade’s new company when he moves out of his insulated garage this fall and into new and much larger premises on Mission Street in St. Boniface Industrial Park. A proper website is in progress.