ARTIST ELIZABETH MEGGS’ FIRST PERSON ACCOUNT OF HER EXPERIENCE AS A PARTICPATING ARTIST
“UH OH,” I said out loud and froze, when I read the incoming email that said, “On behalf of Lower Manhattan Cultural Council and the Trust for Governors Island, I am delighted to announce that your submission for the 2022 Governors Island Winter Ice Sculpture has been selected. Congratulations! We are excited to have your work as part of our 10 selected artists for our first ever Ice Sculpture Show!”
I’d been so excited when I’d submitted my ice sculpture proposal in early February, but suddenly I had a case of major nerves because I’d have to be carving a large ice sculpture during two hours at a crowded public event, USING A CHAINSAW and other sharp power and carving tools. And, I’d never used a chainsaw. Or carved ice before. Not ever.
The email went on to encourage the selected artists to bring waterproof gloves, shoes, and clothing, along with a change of clothes, since working with ice is a splash zone.
But, I believed in my artistic vision and did feel extremely thrilled that the sculpture could come to life due to the generous support of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council and the Trust for Governors Island, so my mind began racing about planning all of the logistics to create a successful sculpture.
A few weeks earlier, I’d been one of about a hundred artists in New York City to submit an ice sculpture proposal. I’d received an email announcing the “Open Call for Proposals for the first-ever Governors Island Winter Ice Sculpture Show!” The open call mentioned that esteemed ice-carving studio Okamoto Studio would be on site to guide the artists in creating an ice sculpture, so I didn’t hesitate to submit my most ambitious idea. But now, the realities of making an ice sculpture chilled my heart with nervous anticipation. I simultaneously felt super-thrilled and super-nervous!
My ice sculpture proposal consisted of several images, including to-scale precise typography that I set in Adobe Illustrator and a to-scale three-dimensional rendering that I’d made using an Apple Pencil in Procreate on an IPad Pro.
I submitted the following brief description of the proposed ice sculpture:
The phrase “WOW MOM” has multiple meanings:
1. It refers to the matrilineal clan system, and matrilocal society, of the area’s indigenous Lenape people.
2. It presents the word “WOW” as it would look reflected in water, in a nod to the area’s island and nautical roots.
3. The phrases “WOW” and/or “WOW MOM” are exuberant expressions likely used through history to share the excitement of seeing the New York City skyline and harbor for generations of visitors and immigrants, and currently to share the joy of Governor’s Island’s new Hills, especially the longest slide in New York City! Because Governor’s Island is a beacon for children and ideal place to play, the phrase “WOW MOM” considers the joyful exuberance of children, in an optimistic look toward a bright future bolstered by the work of the Center for Climate Solutions.
Using a palindrome that can be interpreted in every direction, both forward and backward, for a clear medium such as ice is ideal because it can be read from all sides. Plus, in a broader sense, the concept of a palindrome, going both forward and backward at once, reflects our society’s continuing efforts to understand the past and history while forging a humanitarian and positive path forward. After the challenging and heartbreaking 2+ years of the Covid-19 pandemic, an expression of exuberance, realized in “WOW MOM” reminds us of brighter days that are surely ahead.
I took a deep breath and gazed out the window at the frozen, grey day. A big part of being an artist is planning every detail required to pull off a successful art piece, exhibit, opening, or event. I made a list, and began researching waterproof clothing. I remembered that a friend of mine who rides motorcycles owned a rain suit, so I searched for those online. Sure enough, full rain suits for adults are widely available and affordable.
My years of experience as an artist are based on painting, drawing, photography, and digital media — not power tools and sculpture. I’d only once carved a small stone sculpture using a chisel, but that had been in 1994. I’d also used clay to make jewelry, and then had done basic woodshop work like using a miter box saw to cut canvas stretcher bars or a band saw to make simple cuts in wood.
I started to deeply panic about using a chainsaw. In fact, when I tried to fall asleep that night, I had visions of horrible chainsaw accidents. I imagined cutting off my own hand, or accidentally slashing my face and eyes with a chainsaw. After a fitful night’s sleep, the next morning I admitted to myself that it would be prudent to find some assistants who had more chainsaw, power tool, and sculpture experience than I possess. I was in luck because two of the nicest friends I have happen to be outstanding sculptors, Rainy Lehrman and Ward Yoshimoto. They both have masters’ degrees in sculpture, and they have many years of experience with tools, materials and most importantly, safety practices.
After contacting Rainy and Ward, I felt immense relief and gratitude that they both agreed to be my assistants at the ice sculpting event. Not only did I feel like carving the sculpture would go more smoothly with them on my team, but I also felt that we’d be less likely to have any horrible chainsaw accidents. It would also be so much more fun to share the day with friends and fellow artists!
Thankful, I began preparing everything that we’d need for the day, including snacks, extra rubber gloves, and rain suits. I designed and printed a flyer with information about the sculpture to have available for the crowd on the day of the event. I also quickly designed an attention-grabbing invitation with a chainsaw image to email and share on social media, plus emailed my friends and family to invite them to the event. Since the ice sculpting was a live event that was open to the public, it had a performative aspect. Because of this, I felt inspired by the band Devo and their matching red hats, and decided to buy matching neon yellow rain suits for my entire team, with neon yellow hats. I also stenciled each of our names on the lower bottom of the back of our rain jackets, as firefighters do. I was stenciling our names until 1:30 am the night before the event. Everything was packed and ready.
My cat woke me up by shouting at me until I got out of bed at close to 5 am on the morning of the event, February 26. Keep in mind that I’d stayed up until 1:30 am the night before. So, I was extremely tired, and sleep deprivation is dangerous when using power tools, especially chainsaws. Caffeine and I don’t mix well, but I knew I needed to be alert, so since I was so sleep deprived, I drank two cups of coffee while getting ready to go. I ate a healthy breakfast that included scrambled eggs, and took my vitamins. I also took the time to do my makeup, with black eyeliner and mascara, because I knew we’d be photographed while making the ice sculpture.
I had a rolling suitcase full of my team’s neon yellow rainsuits and two big tote bags full of other gear for my team, so I splurged on a taxi to the ferry terminal at Pier 6 at Brooklyn Bridge Park in Brooklyn. Once out of the cab, I couldn’t find the ferry, so rolled my gear over to a security booth to ask for directions. I then rolled all the gear down a path, surrounded by foliage, until I reached the ferry that would go to Governors Island. My assistant Ward Yoshimoto and his son Red showed up. The weather was bright and beautiful, with expected high temperatures of 33 degrees Fahrenheit, which would be almost perfect for ice carving, though cold.
My other assistant Rainy Lehrman got on the ferry at another stop, and we were on our way. Docking at Governors Island, we found our way to the designated meeting point for the artists. We had a briefing with ice professionals from Okamoto Studio in a conference room, and made sure all waivers were signed. Shintaro Okamoto, the founder of Okamoto Studio, announced that we’d be one of the two teams he assisted. The other artists did not appear as nervous as I felt — maybe they had tons of chainsaw experience?
After this meeting indoors, the artists went outside to the ice sculpting stations for an orientation. We had smaller blocks of ice to practice on during the orientation, and would be carving 40" by 20" by 10" blocks that weighed 250 pounds for the sculptures. My team and I suited up in the neon yellow rain suits. Since we all had on thick puffy extra-warm coats under our rain suits, we looked quite robust. (I hope people know I have not gained 400 pounds!) I put a box with printed flyers with information about my sculpture in front of our station, for the spectators. Shintaro Okamoto demonstrated all of the power tools for us, and emphasized safety above all else. I felt comfortable and in control using a die grinder and hand tools, but when I tried using the chainsaw, its force was twisting the block of ice behind the chain and I felt I had no control at all. This was scary. I was advised to hold the chainsaw closer to the ice. This chainsaw position was slightly better, but I still felt I had no control. I tried a few times, but never could get the hang of the chainsaw. I was never more relieved than when Rainy looked me in the eye and said, “I have hundreds of hours of experience using a chainsaw.”
First, I placed a precise exact size paper printout of my sculpture’s design on the block of ice, with Ward and Rainy holding the drawing stable. The paper was quickly being compromised by the moisture of the ice, so I had to work fast. I transcribed the drawing of the typography onto the ice, using a metal tool that Shintaro Okamoto shared with me.
We had no time to waste. Ward and Rainy and I inscribed lines in the ice from the front to back, so that our cuts would be even throughout. We discussed the best way to create structurally sound cuts that wouldn’t destroy the whole block. Our initial plan was to only recess the forms so that the sculpture would be very solid, with only a few cuts going all the way through.
Ward and I stood back while expert chainsawer Rainy Lehrman made the first cut, at an outside angle on the letter W. She did a beautiful job, and professional ice sculptor Shintaro Okamoto even said, “Beautiful cut!”
After the first forms were chainsawed from front to back, Ward pushed the excess ice away. We swept away all of the ice chips. Our fingers were definitely quite cold! Then, Ward and I began smoothing the surface with chisels while Rainy chainsawed the other side. We kept at this at an almost frenzied pace, never stopping for a break.
The first big ferry load of spectators had clearly arrived. Suddenly, hundreds of people were crowding around the ice sculpture stations. We had to maintain laser focus as we worked. Any distraction on our part could equal a horrible chainsaw accident.
The more cuts going all the way through the ice, the more dazzling it looked. We consulted with Shintaro Okamoto about the possibility of cutting all the way through all of the negative spaces, to have freestanding letterforms (which was my initial idea). He told us to go for it.
Rainy got to work making multiple cuts in an asterisk shape where the circular form on the letters O would be removed. Once she did that, we chipped out the circle, and I started smoothing the inner circle with a die grinder while Ward worked on the other side smoothing with hand tools and Rainy continued chainsawing. Rainy remarked that carving ice was more buttery than wood because one didn’t have to contend with abnormalities inherent in wood grain. Once all of the sections were cut away, we raced to finish smoothing and refining the surfaces with hand tools. The crowds had cheered us on throughout the two hours, and we were down to the wire.
“Five minutes! Artists, you have five minutes to complete your sculptures!” said a voice over a megaphone.
I’d spotted a man with a blowtorch down the line of artists. I frantically requested that he come to our sculpture and give it a shot of fire so that it would have a smoother, more crystalline appearance. With mere seconds left, the man handed the blowtorch to Shintaro Okamoto, and he scorched “WOW MOM” with a dramatic blast of fire.
“TIME’S UP. ARTISTS, STOP WORKING.”
We’d just made it. I was seduced by the beauty of the ice. Sunlight and colors shimmered throughout “WOW MOM.”
While we could have continued refining and smoothing the forms for probably several more hours, we had achieved a strong completed realization of my artistic vision, and thankfully, without anyone having an arm or face cut off by a chainsaw. Faces, fingers, and bodies frozen, we smiled and put down our carving tools. We’d barely had time to take a breath for two hours.
The artists were called to a holding area, where we were informed that prizes would be awarded for People’s Choice, Most Ambitious, Artist’s Choice (which we voted for), and Carver’s Choice awarded by Okamoto Studio. The crowd gathered, and the award ceremony began.
We were elated that “WOW MOM” placed third in the People’s Choice category, which was determined by the decibel level of the crowd’s applause.
It was time for the Carver’s Choice award to be announced. Shintaro Okamoto and some of his team brought out a giant trophy made of ice. Rainy, Ward, and I couldn’t believe it when it was announced that “WOW MOM” had won! Though our faces were frozen, our smiles could not be stopped. We ran up to the trophy and held it as a trio, while photos to commemorate the moment were snapped. I couldn’t believe we’d won the Carver’s Choice Award at the Inaugural Governors Island Ice Sculpture Exhibit!
This award was truly a testament to the incredible skills of my team. I’ll always have so much gratitude for their expertise and experience that made realizing my artistic vision and winning the award possible. We debated what to do with the ice trophy. We discussed trying to put it in my rolling suitcase and keep it in a freezer somewhere, but ultimately decided it would be best left to melt organically alongside the sculpture.
We celebrated with hot cider, hot chocolate, beer, and hot mulled wine. After that, we gathered up all of our gear, and realized that we’d missed the ferry to Brooklyn, and had no choice but to take the last ferry, which stopped in Manhattan. Riding the ferry across New York Harbor, exhausted and still frozen, we saw the most gorgeous sunset as we approached the always breathtaking lower Manhattan skyline. We said our goodbyes as we all went our separate ways. “Let’s do it again next year!” one of us said.
The next morning, my hands and arms were in immense pain from the carving, and I was still totally exhausted. I realized that I’d been in basically freezing temperatures for more than 7 hours outside, and that had taken a toll. It was thrilling to see an article about the event in Gothamist by outstanding photojournalist Scott Lynch. Because the ice carving event was so intense and focused, we did not have a chance to spend much time with the other artists, but enjoyed seeing their finished pieces, which are pictured in the Gothamist article.
After I recovered, I was astonished to find that Ward’s 11 year old son Red had taken over 700 professional level photos on the camera I had handed to him, some of which are seen here. I am so grateful to Red for his wonderful work, and can’t thank him enough. I very much look forward to seeing what he will do in coming years, because his future is surely amazing.
In reflecting on the event, Ward Yoshimoto told me, “The most challenging aspect is that we didn’t know what we were in for, how the medium responds, and where to start. We knew the design but didn’t really see the ice until we started, size et al. Plus we were expecting it to be freezing that day.
I never used the chainsaw but it looked like a hot knife in butter, no kickback from the chain. Because of the design of the piece, the hardest part I’m sure was keeping the blade at 90 degrees so the cuts were square. Also, the blade was just long enough to get to the back side, it was a little easier when we started going in from the back.
Anyone carving ice should go for the wildest design possible within their skill level. The ice is stronger than I thought. We didn’t have small details but I could easily see how it could translate. Also, having a plan of execution is helpful, where to do the first cuts, how to finish. We were lucky to have 6 eyes and Shintaro Okamoto, too, to get through some of the difficult sections.
Because we were new to this, danger and only 2 hours to finish, we were all pretty focused on the task. We were all having fun though, you can tell by the smiles on our faces.
I think the most memorable moments were when the first big cuts were made and we could see it was possible to do the design. Also, winning the Carver’s Choice Award was super cool. I think we had one of the harder designs because it had to be pretty true to the drawing. I’m ready for next year!!!”
I asked Rainy Lehrman for her thoughts, and she told me, “Just wanted to say the best part was having my daughter Maple see how badass I am! She knows that I use tools but has rarely seen me in action and to have her see it with other people watching me made her extra proud and in turn made me extra proud. I was so thrilled with your proposal and the whole experience was just what I needed to get over my winter blues. So thank you!”
When I reflect on the entire event, it was one of the most magical and fun art events that I’ve ever participated in. The sculpture itself surpassed my expectations, with beautiful typographic, palindromic forms shining with energy and color and light, spreading a positive message while remembering the people and history of Governors Island who are long gone.
I love the ephemeral nature of ice sculpture. In an art world that so often seems like it embraces crass commercialism, ice sculptures are the antithesis of materialism because their very material begins melting almost as soon as it exists, once out in the world.
Through the week I watched the sun and temperatures rise, and closed my eyes as I pictured what the sculpture must have looked like as it and the trophy melted. While they are both long gone, our photos and memories remain for a lifetime. One day, we’ll all be long gone as well, but hopefully this inaugural day of the ice carving exhibition is the beginning of years of ice sculpture events at Governors Island, and perhaps, just perhaps, someone years from now will remember us, this special day, and the ice sculptures.
Please connect with artist Elizabeth Meggs on Twitter and Instagram at both @elizabethmeggs and @meggspaintings. You can see more of her artwork at https://elizabethmeggs.com plus a lot of her paintings at https://meggspaintings.com/