Ice Carving, Baoqing, China, 2023

Just before last Thanksgiving I was unexpectedly invited to carve ice in Baoqing, China, over the Christmas holiday and in Jiamusi, over the New Year. I had to decide quickly and act fast. This would be a golden opportunity, but one with some hefty sacrifices. It would mean being away from my family at the holidays, especially our oldest child who had just moved to the West Coast to start their freshman year at college, but who would be home for Christmas. After checking with my family, everyone agreed that it would be a shame to miss such a wonderful trip, to return to carve ice in Asia for the first time since rushing home from China, in January 2020, just ahead of Covid-19 travel restrictions.

Like my three previous trips to China, everything was a little uncertain, confusing, and seemed to be completely up in the air. Going would once again be an act of ultimate faith. I would buy my own round trip ticket and hope that the cost would eventually be reimbursed. I would have to trust that the funds would be there in China, that the competition would happen as planned, and that everything that was promised would eventually come true.

I intentionally spaced out my travel, first an overnight flight to Germany with a seven-hour layover, then on to China, to try to make the trip as pleasant and relaxing as possible. The shortest route to China, over the North Pole, is not currently an option for most international carriers due to political tensions with Russia. So, instead I flew through Europe. In Frankfurt I checked my bag in a locker and took the train 20 minutes into the city. I walked from the station to the city’s oldest section early in the morning, before businesses were open, and took in the Christmas Markets set up in the squares. Then I crossed the river and visited the Städel Museum that announces on their website “700 Years of Art Under a Single Roof”. The collection did not disappoint. Then I hustled back to the Frankfurt airport for another overnight flight to Beijing.

Zhang Xin, my dear friend and host in China, was as good as his word. His contact in Beijing, Yang, met my flight, after another 14 hours in the air, and drove me to the high-speed rail station, where I caught a train that would take me five and a half more hours North to Harbin. Once there I was greeted by a student, Wang, who took me out for a hot pot dinner and a good long rest at a hotel near the university. Very early the next morning, before dawn, he met me again and took me back to the station to catch a train to Shangyashan where I was met by a driver, Mr. Liu, who drove me the final two hours to Baoqing.

By the time I finally reached Baoqing, in the remote far NE of China, I had been in transit for over 36 hours. I had slept a fair bit, on both flights and in the Harbin hotel, but now I was 13 time zones ahead of Philadelphia and my body’s internal clock was completely out of whack. It was still early on the day of the 21st, so I went to my hotel room to rest a bit more in an actual bed until lunch. I joined the rest of the artists, who had all started carving that morning, when they came to the hotel for lunch. I was very excited to see friends from China and other countries who I had not seen in nearly four years.

My teammate Andy, sometimes known as ‘Little An’, was born in Harbin, China but had lived in Fairbanks, Alaska for the better part of 19 years. He first came to the USA with his uncle, ‘Big An’, to carve at Ice Alaska, known as the World Ice Art Championship. Their team participated in many consecutive competitions in Fairbanks, won it, and garnered a great deal of respect in the international sculpting community. Their presence in Alaska was a strong tie between the American ice carving community and Asia. Andy stayed on in Fairbanks, working year round at the Ice Museum there. Now Andy was back living in China and paired up with me to carve in Baoqing.

Everyone assured me that there would be no problem with language at all, since Andy had lived for so long in the USA. The way it turned out, however, was that I had trouble understanding Andy’s English, and nobody in China really understood his Chinese too well, either. Andy is in that special place, like so many migrants, that is not quite at home in either country. Fortunately Andy is right at home carving ice with a chainsaw and easily follows visual cues. He had no trouble following my drawings and the marks I made directly on the ice. We quickly got to work after lunch in the chilly amusement park and had the general form of the piece punched out by day’s end.

But then calamity struck. We were feeling good about our progress after only half a day of work and went to store our tools for the night in the warm room set aside fo us. My snowy boots hit the warm, slick tile floor and down I went. My hand went out to break my fall and it took the worst of the impact. 20 minutes later, on the bus back to the hotel, I knew that my hand was injured pretty badly. It had swollen and there was a throbbing ache. I felt I probably needed an x-ray.

Falling on ice is its own art form. Those who typically work in icy climates know this risk and deal with it appropriately. Instead of throwing out one’s arms to break one’s fall, the correct form is to crumple, tuck, and roll. Remember, when it’s only 14 F degrees outside you are wearing many layers of thick clothing. And there is sometimes even a pile of soft snow to land in. But most of all, those walking on ice and snowpack know how to walk in a sort of shuffle, taking small steps, and keeping a low center of gravity. I had learned all of this previously, but after so much jet lag, sleep disruption, and it being only my first full day in the cold, I had forgotten.

That evening, after a quick dinner, Mr. Liu and Lynn, a student translator, took me to the local hospital where I was seen by the doctor on call. He ordered x-rays and told me to come back the next day to see a more senior doctor. So carving the next day was out. I had a very rough ‘dark night of the soul’. I wept quietly while my roommate slept. The next day the second doctor fitted me with a plaster cast and told me not to use that hand, luckily my non dominant left hand, for 4-6 weeks, the whole length of my intended stay in China. Again I met up with the other artists at lunch, after missing another half day of carving. I decided I would dress for work in the afternoon and see what I was able to manage.

For the rest of the competition in Baoqing, my left hand stayed in the warm pocket of my jacket. No gloves or mittens would fit over the cast, so I just kept it there and did what I could with my right hand. I am so grateful that my partner, Andy, was undaunted and continued to press on with me. I was able to hold a long-handled ‘pickle fork’, a forked chisel designed especially for ice, and Andy was able to come after my sharpie marks on the ice to remove big hunks with the chainsaw. Against all odds, we were somehow able to make good progress.

Let me tell you a little about ice carving in Asia. A single block, as this competition was, consists of a natural block of river ice, 2 meters square and about 50 cm thick, set on edge on a 3 meter base, 50 cm high. Some ambitious teams will save pieces that are cut away and reattach them to extend beyond the 2 m square. But for the most part it is a process of subtraction, using chainsaw, chisels, and electric grinders.

When I initially made my design, Cassandra of Troy, I did not know who my partner would be, what access I would have to power tools (China runs on 220V), or even how many days the competition would run. My design, therefore, was fully contained within the square. There were no tricky fuses or lifting and stacking heavy blocks. This turned out to be a great advantage and one of the few saving graces. With the long-handled chisels, I was able to reach most parts of the sculpture from the ground, and did not have to scramble a great deal up and down the scaffolding provided for us.

The subject of my design, Cassandra, the mythical prophetess of the Trojans, was inspired by listening to the recordings of Connie Converse, the eccentric, ground-breaking 1950’s chanteuse of New York City. Last year my good friend Howard Fishman published the authoritative biography of Converse and had shared a pre-publication copy of the text with me for feedback. I was honored and completely enthralled by Howard’s telling of her story and read almost 600 pages very quickly. The book, To Anyone Who Ever Asks, reads like a compelling mystery, that is part memoir of the author’s enthusiastic quest, making it a thoroughly unique, enjoyable, and highly recommended book.

The beautiful Cassandra was given the power of prophesy by her would-be lover, the Greek god Ares. But she enraged the god when she spurned his advances. So, to punish her, Ares cursed Cassandra, making it so that nobody would ever believe her, but instead receive her warnings as the ravings of a lunatic. As a result, even though Cassandra foresees the sack of Troy, the inhabitants refuse to believe her and ignore her warning about the gift of the Greeks, the giant wooden horse. Troy falls to the Greeks, Cassandra is taken by the Greek King Agamemnon, and both eventually die horrendous deaths. Somehow Connie Converse found all of this to be relatable and wrote an entire song cycle, utilizing the poems of e. e. Cummings, T.S. Eliot, Dylan Thomas, and A.E. Houseman, based upon the story. Upon reading Converse’s biography and listening to the newly recorded and released album Connie’s Piano Songs, I felt I needed to explore the subject of Cassandra as well, in sculpture.

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