Behind the Scenes at ICE!
by Rhonda Ross
When I lived in Nashville, Tennessee it was a family tradition to make the annual trek to Gaylord Opryland each Christmas to participate in the ultimate holiday experience. The magnificent staircase in the Magnolia Lobby complete with a towering tree crafted from live red poinsettia plants alone made the trip worthwhile. Add in more than two million lights and numerous shows and you have memories made that will last a lifetime. So it’s no wonder when I received the opportunity to get an inside look at Christmas at the Gaylord Texan I jumped at the chance.
Let me tell you, they do a great deal more than just deck the halls with boughs of holly. Read on for a little insider look into a Lone Star Christmas.
Going inside the 14,000 square foot ICE! tent while the master artisans were creating their masterpieces was without a doubt one of the coolest things I’ve ever done. And I don’t mean just because the temperature hovered around 9 degrees. Watching these master carvers at work puts a whole new perspective on the magnificence that is ICE!
The talented group of forty ICE! artisans make the trek from the far away land of Harbin, China to Grapevine, Texas every year; some of them returning year after year. The Gaylord welcomes them with a tradition of Texas hospitality by lining up all the hotel employees in a lengthy clap line that fills the halls with the sound of applause as the artists enter the Gaylord. Bringing their own chefs and an interpreter with them, they are ready to spend nearly a month working 12-hour shifts inside a 9-degree freezer. While the temperature may sound extreme to us warm-blooded Texans the artists feel right at home. My tour guide, Martha Neibling, Director of Public Relations & Marketing for Gaylord Texan, and I, bundled up with heavy coats, scarves, and gloves prior to entering the tent and a few of the artists standing outside gave us a big smile as we prepared to open the door. Martha explained that they found our excessive outerwear a bit amusing since they are accustomed to working in -20 to -30 degree temperatures at home.
Located in northeast China, Harbin has a chilling arctic climate courtesy of the whistling wind ripping across the land from nearby Siberia, which creates below freezing temperatures for almost half the year. With an average temperature during the winter of only 2 degrees to bone-chilling drops to -36 degrees there is a natural abundance of snow and ice to work with. Today, the ‘Ice City’ of Harbin hosts one of the world’s greatest ice artwork festivals in the world where hundred of thousands of people come to view the exquisite ice and snow sculptures.
Since 5,000 enormous blocks of ice aren’t something you can pick up just anywhere the two million pounds of ice needed to sculpt ICE! has to be specially made at a local facility rented by Gaylord Texan. Believe it or not, there is a special recipe for ice and it’s a bit more difficult than baking Christmas cookies. To be certain the ice meets the high standards required for carving the artisans actually make it themselves. Even with the ice factory producing the ice as quickly as they can it arrives at the Gaylord Texan over a period of 3 weeks, in approximately 36 refrigerated tractor-trailer trucks full of large ice blocks on pallets that have to be moved around by forklift. During my visit I watched in wonder as a forklift picked up a pallet of multi-colored ice from a stack against the wall that stretched as far as the eye could see.
The Gaylord tells us that the most difficult type of ice to make is the crystal clear ice. Each 400-pound block of ice takes 45 gallons of highly filtered de-ionized water and must be frozen slowly allowing time for the molecules to line up perfectly giving it that diamond-like quality. Who knew?
The white ice that resembles frozen snow is frozen quickly, giving it the foggy look like the ice cubes from your refrigerator door. Sounds like the easiest to make but very important for making the perfect snowman or igloo. Amongst all the different recipes, the ice I found most intriguing was the colored ice so full of bold, brilliant hues. Turns out that simple food coloring is used to make the multi-colored blocks but there’s a trick to it. The color is added to the ice during the freezing process and has to be constantly stirred to ensure a consistent color throughout the block. Amazing.
Working with tools brought from home, the artists often begin by wielding a chain saw to take the huge block of ice to a size that is ready to carve. Then, using various tools from larger chisels to tiny three-tined forks the artists create magic, carving from the heart. The only mortar necessary to hold these colorful creations together is plentiful and easy to find. It’s, what else, ice! Sprinkle some “snow” on, pour a little water and at 9 degrees, instant super glue. Martha explained that they seal the ice with a simple paintbrush and water. Ten of the original 40 artisans will stay throughout the entire run of ICE! to maintain the detailed work in pristine perfection.