Ice sculpting is somewhat of an exotic art. It’s not every day the sculptures are visibly present, like a painting on a wall or pottery on a countertop. First, one can’t just carve ice anywhere—or with ordinary tools.
Kowalski’s backyard contains all the properties of an ice-sculptor’s needs: freezer, roughly the size of a living room and sitting at a cool 15 degrees on the inside; a small chainsaw along with a couple of different drills; a hot plate for smoothing edges and surfaces; and a couple of old-fashioned picks for the details. Last week, he was etching through a few jobs, including the encore Best Of Awards logo.
“Each piece is different depending on a couple things, like how it stands, how thin or thick it is, or the size,”Kowalski says. “encore was pretty easy to do compared to other things I’ve done in the past. I’d say the largest piece I ever did was for the movie ‘We Are The Millers.’ It was about 16 blocks big, and after I finished the thing, it got taken out of the script. For encore, I only used one block of ice.”
He works from home on his small farm. The ranch is home to six ducks, 175 chickens, two pigs, three dogs, three cats and seven goats. Not to mention a nice plot of crops for vegetables. “It’s always been my dream to own a farm,” he says. “I was running my business, [Ice Sensations], off of Wrightsville Avenue when the recession hit. It sucks going hungry.”
Kowalski grew up in Detroit and maintains familiarity with learning how to survive on little-to-nothing. He and his fiancée decided to start homesteading on their own Muenster Farms.
“[NAME] started taking me out to Shelton’s Herb Farm, and I just got the idea I wanted to try chickens,” he says. “All these animals later, here I am, looking for a bigger farm. I guess you never know what’s going to happen. I live the life of an artist and I run a farm.”
He travels a lot to maintain the needs of his business. Kowalski drives trailers full of ice from Charlotte to his farm to replenish his tools. After moving a block or two from the back to the front of his freezer, where he works, he projects the logo onto a piece of paper using an overhead. During our visit, he traced the encore “e” and heated the paper so it stuck to the ice. Using a drill, he carved out much of the inside of the letter and then heated the surface to make it smooth again. After dropping glitter into the letter’s shape, he packed snow back into the cutout. Finally, he used a heated metal plate to seal the packed snow into the rest of the block of ice, leaving only the glitter visible in the lettering.
Right now, ice-sculpting is at its lowest point of business during the first months of the year. Kowalski says, “For some reason, this year, I’m actually busy. Usually, ice sculptors are concerned with competitions right now. I’m not even supposed to be home; I’ve already missed a few I wanted to go to.”
Kowalski has competed in three competitions since the late ‘90s. He won a silver medal at the Ice Culture competition, something he says many of his mentors haven’t achieved. “I’m not saying I’m good,” he humbly states. “I’m saying I’ve learned from some of the greatest ice sculptors around the world.”
Earning a degree in graphic design at Central Piedmont Community College and putting it to work at the post office in Charlotte, Kowalski knew his career with the federal government wouldn’t sustain or fulfill him; in essence, he was miserable with the day job.
“I was doing some recycled steel sculptures of suns outside of my post office job, and one day I was putting them up around a Starbucks when Gary Ross approached me,” Kowalski remembers. “He asked me if I’d done any other mediums and if I wanted to try ice sculpting.” A couple of days later, Kowalski skipped work at the post office and started hanging out at the Ice Sensations studio in Charlotte, and has been working with Ross for the past 12 years.
“Long story short, I called in sick to work for the next six months and started doing ice,” Kowalski says.
Kowalski’s been surrounded by art all his life. “My mom’s an artist,” he notes. “She’s a mechanical draftsman, a dead art more or less. She used to draw out the designs for the insides of computers. It’s mostly computers that do it now.”
He can relate. Kowalski sees ice-sculpting also becoming a dying art form. “The only time someone puts hands on a work is to trim up a piece or go to ice-sculpting competitions,” he notes. Nowadays it’s going toward computer numerical control (CNC) machines. Like many things being replaced by the precision of computers, ice is no different. Despite CNC’s influence, Kowalski continues to create what he loves.
“CNC machines are accurate obviously,” he says. “They’re made to eliminate any errors, but my pieces are done by hand. Folks should consider that someone took time to sculpt the work for their event; someone like me who loves 3-D art. This is what I live for; I’d rather be doing this than working in a post office. I get to use my hands and create.”
Whether elaborate or simple, Kowalski sees no job too overwhelming. “I just worked with Coors Light doing ice chairs and bars for their ice lounge campaign,” he says. “I did a huge Stanley Cup in 2002 for the Detroit-Carolina game. A couple years ago I did an entire maze out of ice. I think next week I’m doing beer mugs and shot glasses for an event up in Virginia.”
Kowalski has been in Wilmington for 10 years now, but has been a native to North Carolina for 17. His business, Ice Sensations of Wilmington, had its 10th anniversary last week. For information and inquiries, call Kowalski at (910) 616-2227.