Carvers prepare for Dowagiac ice festival

Published 9:15 am Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Leader file photo An ice carver prepares a sculpture for Dowagiac’s 17th annual Ice Time Festival.

Leader file photo
An ice carver prepares a sculpture for Dowagiac’s 17th annual Ice Time Festival.

Parrots, penguins and other sorts of wildlife will invade downtown’s Beckwith Park Saturday afternoon.

The creatures won’t be there as part of some strange migration pattern, as they’re not even alive. They will be created from blocks of ice by six area sculptors, during the Dowagiac Ice Time Festival’s carve-off competition.

Nine ice crafting specialists with the Michiana Ice Carver’s Association will be in town this weekend to transform 50 chunks of ice into beautiful frozen statues that will line the storefronts on Front Street. The carvers hail from throughout the Michigan and Indiana area, from South Bend to Edwardsburg.

While some the arctic artisans have only participated in the Dowagiac event for a few years, others, like Alfredo Arroyo, have been carving at the festival since it began 18 years ago.

“It’s a nice little town and they treat you good,” Arroyo said. “You get a lot of people who watch us compete and you get a lot of people who watch us carve.”

Visitors to past Dowagiac Ice Time Festivals may recognize Arroyo’s work. The carver specializes in birds and dragons, the latter of which he carved so often that his colleagues began calling him “Dragon Man,” he said.

“I enjoy the kids who come up and watch me work,” Arroyo said. “They see what I’m making and their faces light up.”

Arroyo, who lives in LaPorte, Ind., has been carving ice for more than 50 years, he said. The now-retired executive chef learned the skills behind ice sculpting from the European chef he worked under.

“One day I saw him working on an ice carving, and I asked if I could do one as well,” he said. “He looked at my work compared to his and he told me I could do them for now on.”

Since then, Arroyo has honed his practice by attending seminars, competitions and other ice festival events. Him and the 19 other carvers with the association participate in 10 to 15 carving events every winter, five to six of which include competitive carve-off events, he said.

Many of the carvers joining Arroyo on Saturday have learned new sculpting techniques from him during the competitions they shared together, Arroyo said.

“I remember when they first started they couldn’t carve much of anything, but now they’re really good at it,” he said. “They picked up tricks from the old guys like me.”

One of the “newer” ice carvers in the association is Howard Busfield, who has been carving for nine years. The South Bend man is one of three carvers in the association who learned the trade during a class at Notre Dame in 2005, he said.

“I’ve always enjoyed power tools and hand tools, and I’ve enjoyed arts and crafts, too,” Busfield said. “This is a good combination of the two.”

Busfield, like most of his fellow carvers, uses chainsaws and other power tools to carve chunks of the ice block, which they fuse together to create their frozen masterpieces.

For Busfield, one of the appeals of the hobby is the ability to craft a work of art that isn’t permanent, using a recyclable resource.

“If I did paintings I would have a house full of them that I would eventually get sick of looking at,” he said.

Busfield has participated in Dowagiac festival since he first started carving, but has only entered the carve-off the last several years. While he said his mechanical-inspired pieces typically do well, he prefers working on the sponsored ice blocks, which provide with more time to perfect his carving.

One of his favorite works is a replica of a Round Oak stove he was commissioned to carve several years ago, he said. Although the companies that purchase sponsor blocks choose the design of they want the chunk of ice to be turned into, Busfield enjoys working on them.

“It’s kind of a challenge, but it’s fun to make something different than you normally would,” he said.

Like Arroyo, Busfield says he enjoys carving in Dowagiac, and is looking forward to putting on a show for the city this weekend.

“I’m ready to come up there and have some fun, enjoying my favorite hobby,” he said.