Our Lady of Victories, a 14-foot-tall bronze sculpture of the Greek goddess Nike, was placed atop a granite pedestal in Portland’s Monument Square more than a century ago, to memorialize the thousands of city residents who died fighting in the Civil War. Sword and shield in hand, she steadfastly watches over the bustling plaza, where Jay Bluck recently set about sculpting another mythic figure, the risen-from-the-ashes phoenix, a symbol of the city ever since a series of devastating fires in the 1700s and 1800s. Bluck’s medium, though, is considerably less durable than bronze.
Bluck began with a 250-pound block of ice, and as he used a chainsaw to rough out his design, snow and chunks of ice piled up, then puddled, at his feet. A jazz band played nearby, and Eddy the Yeti and Betty the Yeti, furry mascots from Sunday River ski resort, waved at passersby — the ice-carving demonstration was part of a promotion for Carnaval ME, the upcoming winter fair at Portland’s Eastern Promenade park. Soon, Bluck had swapped out the chainsaw for die grinders with various attachments for shaping and sanding and other finer touches. “There’s a whole subculture for ice carving,” he says. “We use some custom-machined bits that only work on ice — they’re no good for anything else.”
Within Maine, Bluck is essentially a subculture of one. Beyond his Topsham-based SubZero Ice Carvings, he knows of no other ice-carving business in the state, and he has no shortage of orders for sculptures for weddings, corporate conferences, and festivals. He also builds ice bars, typically for restaurants and hotels. Last winter, with most public events called off due to the pandemic, he got more requests for backyard ice bars, which he’ll customize any which way, from size to lighting to inscriptions to logos to overall design. “We did a moose ice bar one time,” he notes. “The drink luge was the moose’s head. It looked like the body was underwater and the bar top was the water’s surface, so the moose’s head was just poking up.”
Bluck got into ice sculpture more than a decade ago, when he was the banquet chef at a Falmouth country club. “I started learning carved garnishes and other techniques like that,” he says. “I was going online and buying rare books from Japan on vegetable garnishing and stuff like that. Ice carving is primarily a culinary art too, and it was always sort of an interest.” He apprenticed on the side with a Maine-based ice-carving outfit, and when the owner moved away, Bluck decided to hang out his own shingle. “In the beginning, I’d do maybe six sculptures a year,” he says. “Now, when it’s busy, I’ll do 15 in a week. Once the temperature starts dropping, people get ice on the brain.”
After an hour and a half in Monument Square, Bluck finessed the last thin curlicue of flame licking at his phoenix and stepped back to take in his handiwork. Then, he took off his heavy winter gloves and wrung them out, and a torrent of water splattered onto the ground. “My hands get all wrinkly, like they’ve been in the pool all day,” he says. The day had grown unseasonably warm, and the sculpture was sweating. Unless one of Bluck’s pieces is kept out of the sun and in temperatures below freezing, it starts diminishing before it’s even finished. “Do I have feelings or emotions about it? Am I sad? No, not really,” he says. “The expectation that an ice sculpture will melt is kind of what makes it what it is.”