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Downers Grove Ice Fest displays 'art for the moment'

Published: Thursday, Feb. 13, 2014 12:04 p.m. CDT • Updated: Friday, Feb. 14, 2014 3:08 p.m. CDT
(Bill Ackerman)
A frozen hockey player takes a shot on the southwest corner of Main and Curtiss Streets. Ice sculptors from Nadeau's Ice Sculptures demonstrate their art for Ice Fest in downtown Downers Grove on Saturday, Feb. 8, 2014. Bill Ackerman - backerman@shawmedia.com
(Bill Ackerman)
Al Ramirez, one of the ice sculptors from Nadeau's Ice Sculptures carves a penguin in a scrap piece of ice from a sculpture he's making during Ice Fest in downtown Downers Grove on Saturday, Feb. 8, 2014. Bill Ackerman - backerman@shawmedia.com

DOWNERS GROVE – Jim Nadeau and his team will sculpt nearly anything a client can dream, from a 100-foot-long train filled with cookies for Nabisco, to Michelangelo's "David" used in the film "My Best Friend's Wedding."

But, like a gourmet meal, the opportunity to marvel is fleeting, and in a matter of hours the ice sculptures are gone forever.

"It's art for the moment. I know it's going to disappear," he said. "It's planned obsolescence."

Nadeau learned the the skill while working as a line cook in the early '70s. Back then, chefs created ice swans and other banquet pieces with hand tools, not chain saws.

"It would take a very long time to do some very basic stuff," Nadeau said. "I just immediately fell in love with the concept."

His first attempt didn't even last long enough to melt, he said. His mentoring chef knocked it off the restaurant loading dock with a swift kick and a German-accented insult in a moment of what might be generously described as motivational.

Nadeau kept at it, and in 1980 he left his job with Marriott Hotels to start what might be the first ice sculpting business in the country, Nadeau Ice Sculptures, based in Forest Park.

"They told me I was nuts, because at that point there were no ice carving companies in the U.S.," he said. "That was 34 years ago and we're still doing it."

This weekend, Nadeau and his staff hauled dozens of 300-pound blocks of ice to the annual Downtown Downers Grove Ice Festival. The 40 Winter Olympics-themed sculptures gracing Main Street businesses were the work of his team, as were the live ice sculpting demonstrations each day of the festival.

The art of ice sculpting has come along way from hand chisels. Nadeau Ice Sculptures can cut pieces at the shop using computer designs paired with an automated drill called a CNC machine, typically used to make exact corporate logos out of ice for events.

And, of course, there's the crowd-favorite tool, the chainsaw, often used by the sculptor along with a dremel.

The saw is a change of pace for artist Al Ramirez who has carved for Nadeau for about eight years.

On his own time, Ramirez makes large, intricate drawings that can take days to create in his Pilsen studio. It's quite the opposite when he comes to work with power tools.

"I really like how fast it is," he said. "You can knock out an ice sculpture in an hour. You're working at the speed of the chain saw."


How they make the ice

Nadeau says they use the clearest water they can buy to ensure the ice is clear, similar in quality to a bottled spring water.

The water is frozen in 300-pound tanks at 22 degrees, the entire time agitators move the water around to force out air. Then an electric hoist lifts the blocks from the tanks using steel clips frozen just a half-inch into the ice.

Each block takes four days to freeze. The business has 45 tanks, staggered to make about 90 blocks a week.

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