November 28, 2022
Ithaca, NY | 39°F

Life & Culture

Ice sculptors compete for prizes on The Commons

Ithaca is no stranger to freezing winds and frosty nights. Although the cooler months are already in full swing, the city will bundle up this weekend to celebrate the cold rather than combat it.

Standing beside the bustle of chilly college students and community members will be ice sculptors cutting, chiseling and smoothing out masterpieces from the previously unexceptional block of ice before them, all for the attendees of Ice Fest — Ithaca’s annual icecarving competition and showcase.

In its 12th annual appearance on The Commons, the festival hosts sculptors from around the country. They will compete for $9,000 in prizes over three days of ice carving contests from Dec. 6 to 8. The speed carving competition will take place 5 p.m. Dec. 7 when sculptors will compete to craft an elaborate sculpture from one block of ice in approximately 20 minutes. The two-block showpiece challenge the festival’s main event will loosen the sculptors’ time restraints, allowing them the entirety of the final day to forge artwork from two slabs of ice.

Summer Keown, special events director for the Downtown Ithaca Alliance, said each sculpture in the competitions is limited by the sculptor’s imagination, the time they have to sculpt and the weather at the festival.

“It’s really up to their own creativity,” she said. “Their main requirement is time. … The one on Saturday, they have more time, so they can really do some incredible artwork. They’ll be all throughout The Commons working, and people can come and watch them work all day.”

One sculptor returning to compete is Aaron Costic, last year’s firstplace winner for the championship title. His winning sculpture, titled “Wind,” depicted a headless male body with angel’s wings. Costic is an Olympic gold medalist and won at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy, for ice carving.

“He always puts out these spectacular, detailed sculptures,” said Darlene M. Donohue-Wilber, communications manager for the Downtown Ithaca Alliance. “The detail and the time he puts into his sculptures, it’s just incredible to watch him work with the different tools. He’s definitely got a lot of experience under his belt.”

Keown also said that before Ice Fest, many local businesses will have custom ice sculptures made that will be placed outside their storefronts during the festival. Some restaurants on The Commons will also be featured in the annual Chowder Cook-off, which kicks off its ninth year at noon Dec. 8th. Prizes will be awarded in the categories of best meat, best seafood or best vegetarian chowder. The Chowder Cook-off gives attendees the opportunity to taste the local flavors of the city, Donohue-Wilber said.

The chowders are served at the festival’s famous Ice Bar, where attendees can order beer, wine and hot cocoa from a bar whittled entirely from ice.

For some attendees, Ice Fest will run to the melodies of the silent disco, a dance party with music played through individual, synced headphones. The DJ’s music, instead of being piped out through speakers, will be transmitted to the listeners’ wireless headphones, said Ben Ortiz, known as DJ ha-MEEN. Ortiz will be running the silent disco for the second year in a row.

“It was a big success,” Ortiz said. “People had a lot of fun. Obviously, it’s kind of a counterintuitive thing for a lot of people to think that they could go outside and dance in the cold, but, you know, cold is a funny … phenomenon. The more you move, the warmer you feel.”

Sophomore Whitney Rosenfeld said that last year, she heard about Ice Fest on the Downtown Ithaca Alliance Facebook page. The event details sparked her interest, and she said she went to The Commons with a couple of friends to enjoy the festivities. Rosenfeld said she plans to attend the festival this year as well.

“I thought it was really cool that they were having all of these wintery-themed events, and I had gone down with two other friends, and we took pictures by the ice sculptures,” Rosenfeld said. “I’ve been to the Bronx Zoo, where they have ice sculpture contests and a whole winter-themed event at the zoo, but I really haven’t, beyond that, … seen anything like it.”

Ortiz said he enjoys in the excitement around Ice Fest because it gives the winter-bound city the opportunity to revel in the cold rather than reject it.

“I think it says something that this city doesn’t just hibernate over the course of the winter months,” he said. “It’s a reason to get outside and feel good about the outdoors, no matter what the weather.”


Arleigh Rodgers can be reached at or via Twitter: @arleighrodgers