Ice sculptors chill out for PG holiday exhibit

Animated film ‘Madagascar’ is theme of display

An artisan ice sculptor from Harbin, China, works on a wall of crystal clear ice as he and others carve out a huge ice slide, and as others on their team work to create colorful scenes from the DreamWorks’ production of “Merry Madagascar” for this year’s “ICE!” show in Oxon Hill on Thursday. (Rod Lamkey Jr./The Washington Times)
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Growling chain saws, rumbling forklifts and the constant scrape of chisels are not a traditional holiday soundtrack, except at National Harbor, where skilled carvers are once again turning roughly 2 million pounds of ice into a winter wonderland.

The third-annual exhibit opens Friday at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center, in Oxon Hill.

The theme of this year’s 100-acre exhibit — inside a cavernous tent — draws from the movie “Madagascar.” And on a recent November day, 40 carvers were busy turning 400-pound blocks of colored ice into palm leaves, reindeer, lemurs and Christmas presents to make the story about Central Park zoo animals come to life.

“The hardest part [for the carvers] is to get the general idea — what’s their pose?” said Liu Qing, one of two master carvers on site. “There are sometimes funky shapes.”

The 57-year-old Mr. Liu is a jade carver from Harbin, China, a northern province internationally renowned for its ice festivals.

Though unfamiliar with the digitally animated film, the carvers, working in single-digit temperatures, have nailed the likeness of the larger-than-life animals down to the last black stripe on a zebra.

“The carvers figure out what is the best process,” said Gaylord spokeswoman Amie Gorrell. “They decide how to build it and in what order.”

The carvers work from a design book that’s more than 200 pages long. The drawings are similar to blueprints for a house — from multiple-angle views to scale measurements. Most of the pages include directions in Mandarin. And two English translators are on site, Ms. Gorrell said.

Much of the intricate work is done with handmade tools, some of which have been passed down through generations of ice carvers.

“Most of the gentlemen are artists on their own time,” Ms. Gorrell said. “Many have gone to school to carve. And some of the men are in construction.”

Regardless of their job 11 months out of the year, for 30 days the carvers make their home at National Harbor and commute the short distance to the tent, which is kept at 9 degrees Fahrenheit.

“That’s the optimum temperature for the ice,” Ms. Gorrell said. “If the ice gets too hard, it can get brittle and crack.” After the exhibit opens, 32 of the carvers will return home, but eight stay to oversee touchups throughout the duration of the show.

Over the span of one month, the empty “cold room” goes through an unrecognizable transformation.

Ice chips ground to a fine powder are swept away to make room for a winding carpet. The loud forklifts used to maneuver boulder-size ice blocks are replaced by animated sculptures, and crystal-clear ice bricks used for overhead arches are polished to a gleam.

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