Confessions of an ice sculptor

SINGAPORE - He can make anything you dream of out of ice - even if it's a blush-inducing alcohol- dispensing penis or super-sized breasts.

You read it right.

Armed with tools like a chain saw, drills, and chisel, Mr Jeffrey Ng transforms blocks of frozen water into pieces of art.

The 50-year-old doesn't bat an eyelid when it comes to receiving these cheeky requests from event organisers or youngsters who want to play pranks on their friends.

These titillating pieces are usually highlights at 21st birthday celebrations or events held at clubs and bars.

But he confesses that he hates it whenever clients ask for disproportionately large private parts.

"I don't mind doing a male or female figure, as long as the body parts look realistic, but some clients will insist that they want big, big, big," he complains.

"I mean, I'm an artist, you know. I spent years studying bodies for this craft. But, bo pian (no choice), lah," he tells this reporter with a sigh.

For the sake of making a living, he accedes to these requests, charging a minimum of $250 per block of 1m by ½m ice , which weighs about 140kg.

A full-time ice sculptor here can make about $6,000 on a good month, he reveals.

His most memorable creations include a 5m slide at a party held at the *Scape area which cost $15,000.

"The entire thing was built in Johor because I didn't have space here, and it took about five days to build," he explains.

Another client, an Indonesia tycoon, paid a hefty $10,000 for him to create an ice bed big enough to fit a large tuna fish, which cost a few thousand dollars.

The most common complaint clients have is the limited clarity of the ice, but this is a constraint due to limited local demand. He explains: "There are high-end ice machines which remove trapped air bubbles completely, which makes the ice clear but the cost is high and there isn't enough demand here to warrant the purchase."

Although he accepts these commercial assignments, his true passion lies in competing overseas in places like Harbin city in China and Finland, where he fashions elaborate and intricate fish, birds and harps out of 2m by 2m ice blocks.

"In the depths of winter, the sun sets at about 3.30pm. We would spend days starting to carve at 9am and finishing only at 7pm.

"Temperatures can reach a low of minus 25 deg C,"says Mr Ng, whose flight and lodging is often paid for by the icesculpting contest organisers.

There are sceptics who question why he puts in so much effort to build masterpieces which are destroyed by a change of temperature and seasons. But the transience of this art is something he has come to accept.

"Of course there's emotional attachment. Sometimes, before we leave the competition venue we will drive around the work to say 'bye bye'.

"When it's gone, you look forward to something new. There's always a new challenge ahead. Besides, there are always photos to reminisce over," he says.

Mr Ng's foray into the unique trade of ice carving began some 27 years ago when he joined a hotel as a chef.

"I saw people doing food and ice carving and it piqued my interest so after knocking off I spent time just learning how to do it from those in the hotel," he says.

Of course he wasn't always so adept at the craft.

Carving a swan - which now takes him a mere 10 minutes - took a whole year to master.

He also remembers being gently chided by a more experienced sculptor after completing a topless ice mermaid, showcased in Harbin.

Says Mr Ng with a loud chuckle: "One of the ice masters told me, her face looks like an 18-year-old, but her figure is not one belonging to a virgin. Your mermaid's body looks like one who has already had babies.

"I later learnt that the breasts I'd created then were a little too droopy."

Although he has never been to a formal art school, he has pored over borrowed books and sketched relentlessly in notebooks to improve his skill.

Patience and tenacity of this sort is not easy to find in the younger generation, he says.

"These days, youngsters have no patience to learn. Some of them approach me saying they want to pick up the skill but give up after three or four days.

"They think it's something that should happen overnight," he laments.

This ice carver's dream? To build his final ice gallery somewhere in South-east Asia by age 58.

"I hope to pair the ice gallery with entertainment like a cafe, perhaps an ice pub, a candy house for kids. A wonderland which will include snow and hot chocolate," he says with a smile.

Secrets of the trade

1 When carving at sub-zero temperatures, saliva can act as glue. If a part of your sculpture falls off, spit on the area you want it to stick to and hold the part down for about 10 seconds. If it's cold enough, it will work.

2 In freezing temperatures, wear a shower cap before putting on your hat, and tie a plastic bag over your foot after putting on your socks and before your shoes. These measures help to keep the chill from seeping in when you have to be outdoors for a long time.

3 Keep a sketchbook close by at all times. Inspiration can come at any time, in any form.

 

benitaay@sph.com.sg


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