The key to shaping ice is recognizing — and adapting — to the fact the frozen water is actually controlling you, said sculptor and Ice on Whyte competitor Delayne Corbett.
"You can't be set on a single idea because you're working with a medium that is constantly changing," said Corbett, a Vancouver resident who is on one of the 10 two-person teams in the professional category.
If the weather is too warm, the ice is sloppy and melts. If it's too cold, a slight spritz of water could cause it to crack.
An ornate overhang on a sculpture that works in minus 1C falls apart when the temperature ticks one degree above zero.
"I push the limits as far as I can," said Corbett, who also works in sand, concrete, stone, clay and other media.
"You kind of know when you get to that breaking point, when you just hear that subtle sound vibration (in the ice)."
"It's the wow factor," he said.
"You step back and go, 'How the heck did they do that?' That's usually what wins the competition.
The carvers will begin work at 6 a.m. on Friday, Jan. 24 and carve for 36 hours over three days with judging taking place on Sunday afternoon.
Festival watchers who arrive on Friday will only see each team with 15 blocks of ice —each weighing 300 lbs. — and a sign indicating what the final work will be about.
One team's work will be called "Fast Food." Another is, "To the Top of the Olympic Mountain." Corbett's is "Data Storm."
The ice-carving competition, which includes professional and novice categories, is the crown jewel of Ice on Whyte.
The festival, now in its 11the year, is just off Whyte Avenue in Edmonton's Old Strathcona arts district.
Attendance hit a record 50,000 last year.
It began as an ice-carving competition but has grown into a festival that includes ice skating (with free skates for blade-less visitors), cultural activities, food and drink, and live music.
The signature element is a monster ice slide with multiple chutes.
"If we had a dollar for every kid that said (to their parents), 'Just one more slide,' we'd never have to fund raise," said festival producer Wanda Bornn.
There is an area for kids, parents, and novices who want to try their hand at ice carving.
There is also karaoke, including a group of young people who now arrive every year on the last Friday to bring the house down with their version of Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody."
"They started out as five (singers) and now they're probably 25," said Bornn.
"They're awesome, and we don't even know who they are."
This year there will be more entry lines, an express line for online ticket buyers, and park-and-sleigh service from nearby lots.
The festival runs Jan. 24 until Feb. 2, and then, like the ice carvings, melts away.
Corbett said he is constantly asked why he works in ephemeral media like ice and sand, where beauty is born only to liquefy away or collapse into its original granular lump.
"For me, that's the joy of it," he said.
"It's there to show the world that you've got to embrace the moment instead of worrying about your future or worrying about death.
"Because everything dies. Everything goes away.
"I'm OK with that."
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