Kira Horvath/(Boulder) Daily Camera
Jess Parrish’s foray into ice carving started with a very different kind of medium: wood.
A case of mononucleosis kept Parrish, then 12, at home – and largely confined to static activities – for months at his family’s ranch west of Berthoud. An elderly neighbor, who was a hobby whittler, taught him the pastime. Out of basswood, Parrish carved small cowboy boots, dogs and earrings.
“Looking back, I think it’s so amazing. Nowadays, people wouldn’t trust a 12-year-old with anything. This guy actually had me carving with razor-sharp knives,” said Parrish, 32, who lives in Longmont.
That planted a seed. Berthoud High School provided an array of art classes, and Parrish later graduated from culinary school in Georgia. Now he runs an ice carving business, Cool Hand Ice Carving, based out of his Longmont home, where he installed an ice block maker and a walk-in freezer in the garage.
Weddings and corporate and sports events keep him busy year-round, but December tends to be his busiest month. Parrish and his crew have created sculptures for a few holiday events in Longmont, including the downtown tree lighting and Longmont Lights.
Parrish’s introduction to ice sculptures came when he was working in the Boulder Country Club’s kitchen. A less-than-beautiful ice sculpture of a golf bag was brought in for an event. Parrish looked at it and thought, “I could do that.”
“I knew right then and there that was what I was going to be doing,” he said.
Other ice carvers in the state refused to take him on as an apprentice, fearing they would be training another competitor in an already tiny niche market. Parrish looked up scarce resources online and then he stumbled on the National Ice Carving Association, a nonprofit group of about 400 ice carvers.
Six years ago, he drove to Green River, Wyo., for his first carving association competition. Armed with only a saw and a die grinder, he planned to carve a knight pulling a sword from a stone and was surprised to learn the first event would include two 300-pound blocks of ice; he had practiced with just one.
“I just pushed them together and started cutting. My chain saw burned up the first hour (of the three-hour event). I’m looking around, and these guys are putting together these sculptures that are just incredible. I’m completely embarrassed. I’m blown away,” he said.
Defeated, he drove home after the first competition of the two-day event. Then he got a phone call from association organizers telling him he was the de facto winner of the competition (no one else entered the amateur category) and encouraging him not to give up.
So he didn’t. Parrish bought real chain saws and chisels. He took a job as a kitchen manager at a Longmont catering company, which gave him the flexibility to practice carving. Two years ago, he started his business.
To date, his largest project was a 120-block castle. Next month, he’s scheduled to create an ice castle at the Village at Winter Park Resort.
When it comes to chiseling ice, below-freezing temperatures are ideal, though Parrish points out that even in warmer weather, ice is surprisingly resilient. In the event of a “crash,” salvageable pieces often can be fused back on with dry ice.
At a four-hour carving competition last year in Ithaca, N.Y., Parrish and partner had about 30 minutes left when their piece – a frog on one leg playing a banjo – crumpled.
“I turned around and the judge says, ‘Put it back together,’” Parrish said.
He ended up with a third-place finish.
Spending hours working on a piece that will eventually be a puddle doesn’t bother Parrish. In fact, he likes that.
“I paint and sculpt stone as well, and I’ll have it finished and overanalyze and instead of sculpting, now I’m trying to fix it,” he said.
Ice, however, is temporary. It melts and then disappears.
“All that means is you have a new canvas,” Parrish said.