Ice sculpture is the art of carving shapes out of ice. It ranges in size from small table decorations to entire towns of ice seen in winter festivals all over the world. The beginnings of ice sculpture are credited to both China and Russia, and go back centuries.
There are two ways to make ice sculpture: You can carve into a block of ice or make a mold. Blocks of ice are obtained from frozen rivers and lakes. Typically water that freezes slowly makes clear ice and is preferred by artists to make ice sculptures. In some places, artificial blocks of ice are made for this purpose.
You can order custom or predesigned ice sculptures to serve as centerpieces for celebrations such as weddings, birthdays and bar mitzvahs. Depending on the weather and the structure of the sculpture, ice art can melt in just a few hours or months. The Harbin International Ice festival, for example, runs for two months. Artists enter elaborate ice sculptures at competitions and festivals held annually all over the world.
Ice festivals are typically seen in places that get very cold. Festivals in Sapporo, Japan, for instance, feature sculpture on an architectural scale such as ice castles and pagodas. The winter carnival in Alaska has participants from over 100 teams annually, including teams from countries such as China and the United States. In Sweden an ice hotel complete with bedrooms and a bar is built every year.
In the 1600s, native hunters and fishermen of the Chinese province of Heilongjiang, on the border of Russia, designed ice lanterns for dark winter nights. They filled buckets with water to make ice, then slid it out, dug a hole in it and put a candle in the hole to make a lantern. The trend spread, and people started hanging decorated lanterns from homes and parading them in carnivals. In 1897, the Transsiberian Railway was extended through the small Chinese fishing town of Harbin in Heilongjiang, once occupied by Russia. As a result of the traffic, Harbin grew into a cosmopolitan city. With below freezing winds from Siberia, and ice from the frozen Songhua river, Harbin became the home of the annual International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival. Currently, this festival features the work of thousands of artists from all over the world.
In 1740, the first monumental scale ice palace was commissioned by the Empress Anna in Russia. Designed by Piotr Eropkin, this palace featured, among other things, ice cannons that fired ice cannon balls, and an ice elephant linked to a canal through pipes thath sprayed water out of its trunk. Since then, complete ice towns have been built in the northern cities of Russia. In 2000, a replica of Anna's ice palace was built in the first International Sand and Ice festival at St. Petersburg. Nine hundred and eighty square feet and 21 feet tall, the palace was built by fusing together blocks of ice from the Neva river. Russians claim that St. Petersburg was where ice sculpture began.