Ice and Snow Sculpting in Harbin, China

Harbin, China
International Ice and Snow Sculpting Competition
January, 2016
Ice Sculpture Harbin China Suzanne Firstenberg

When a talented fellow sculptor invited me to travel halfway around the world to northern China in the middle of winter to compete with her in an international ice and snow carving competition, how could I turn down the opportunity?   The promise of adventure outweighed the prospect of waking up just south of Siberia to spend long days sculpting in frigid temperatures.
Suzanne Firstenberg Harbin China
And the days were long–we were bussed to our sites each morning by 9AM and worked well past sundown, usually until 7 or 7:30PM.  The hour-long lunch breaks inside gave us a chance to thaw out.

When the daily high never rises above zero, it is better not to ask what the wind chill might be.  We managed by wearing multiple layers of technical clothing– Canada Goose and Baffin boots saved me!   And a special thank you to Gerbing for their heated motorcycle gloves which gave me enough warmth to avoid frostbite, but enough flexibility to operate power tools with safety switches.  (Do you think they might fix the glove I cut when the right-angle grinder slipped?)

Harbin China Suzanne FirstenbergBraving the sculptural challenge of a new medium and new tools, I was soon teetering atop icy scaffolding, wielding a chain saw, as I struggled to domesticate our six-foot block of ice. We started with a 12-inch chain saw, but soon a nearby Chinese team member noting our slow progress ventured over.   He pointed to our diminuitive chain saw, laughed, and spread his arms out wide, as would a fisherman exaggerating his catch.  He disappeared for a minute and then returned with his 20-inch chain saw in hand.  Not that I had been anywhere near comfortable brandishing the 12-incher, nonetheless, my gratitude was immense as I accepted his chain saw and set about moving our frozen scaffolding back from the ice block to give me greater reach with this longer weapon.  The view of me attacking the ice block must have been amusing–photographers captured the image and included it in a photo-montage of the competitiSuzanne Firstenberg Chain Saw Harbin China Ice Sculptureon at the ending banquet.  It seems that Tatyana and I were quite a team of interest:  ours was the only two-man ice-sculpting team comprised of two women; she, an eighty-year old and me, a novice ice carver.  Harbin China Suzanne FirstenbergWe didn’t win first prize…or second, but at the banquet we were awarded the Creativity Prize, earned as much for our team composition, no doubt, as for our finished sculpture.

Then, with the glow of the prize warming us, Tatyana and I joined a fresh group of sculptors in the snow competition, located on an island in the middle of the Songhua River, a river that flows from the North Korean border.  Harbin China | Suzanne Firstenberg Sun Island is home to beautiful architecture and was a place of respite for the Russian aristocracy during their time of control over this region in the early nineteenth century.  The bridge leading to the island is a stunning creation.  Harbin China Suzanne FirstenbergDuring the preliminary meeting for the snow competition, we drew the lucky number 8 block for our carving–eight is considered a special number by the Chinese.  And it did prove fortuitous for us as several snow sculptures collapsed during the competition, by our lovely fisherwoman of Tatyana’s design, remained upright for us.  Harbin China Suzanne FirstenbergIn her carving we were joined by two wonderful art instructors:  Haifeng and Enze.  The island proved to be even colder, and we did resort at times to a bit of dancing to ward off frostbite.  We drew a crowd when, for amusement, Tatyana and I exhibited our mad Tai Chi skills during one of our frequent breaks.  Suzanne Firstenberg | Harbin ChinaTaking photos was a bit difficult as electronic devices would automatically shut down once exposed to the elements for over a minute or two, but we captured a few working shots and, close ups.

Suzanne Firstenberg | Ice Sculpture | Harbin ChinaHarbin China Ice Sculpture | Suzanne FirstenbergHarbin China | Suzanne Firstenberg


Harbin China Suzanne Firstenberg


Lessons learned:

  1. Ice harbors a thousand personalities. One block of ice can sport a vastly different feel and behavior depending on how much sunlight is directly reaching its surface or traveling through it, thus requiring different chisel techniques.
  2. Carving an ice sculpture at night, once the LED lights secreted within its plinth come alive, can be mind-bending.
  3. The Chinese people are gracious, kind, and very interested in learning about life in America.  Sculptors from all over the world sought to talk with us–the only team from the USA–about our politics and if Americans were going crazy!  (I told them, “Yes, a bit.”)
  4. Accepting daunting challenge is a thrill: succeeding is unforgettable.

Favorite story:  The Chinese government graciously hosted us, serving bountious meals featuring various Chinese cuisines.  Plates of food were piled high on turntables centered on round tables, but these dishes were not your typical kung pao chicken.  There were so many unidentified foods which rewarded the prandially-intrepid with culinary pleasure, that I often ate things without knowing what they were.  One thinly sliced meat, in particular, tasted interesting so I gestured to the Mongolian sculptor beside me, asking what it was.  Never have I so wished a man were pledging undying love as when I watched his hands slowly rise, one atop the other, to rest on left side of his chest.  Alas, I had just eaten the heart of an large four-legged animal.  Thereafter, my bravery was slightly impaired, and indeed, was  stopped dead-in-its-tracks when encountering a cicada-laden entree…

A closing note:  Several people have asked me if it is difficult to sculpt something that will not last very long…a great question for a sculptor whose pieces of stone and bronze will long outlast the knowledge that they emerged from my hands.  My answer emanates from my hospice work and the acceptance such work affords:  beautiful works of art made from impermanent media remind us that life itself is a work of art best enjoyed in the moment.