Of Ice and Men

In the ice trade, it is said that an ice carver puts in 17 hours a day to avoid working eight hours a day for someone else. For Randy Finch and Derek Maxfield, that's a cold, hard fact.

Finch, 42, a self-described adrenaline junkie, and Maxfield, 39, are the co-owners of Ice Sculptures, Ltd., a business they say is the largest ice carving operation in Michigan and one of the largest in the country. The partners are self-taught ice sculptors and former Amway Grand Plaza chefs who share a love for all things cool.

"If you want to go into business together, be roommates first," Finch says of his partnership with Maxfield. Coming from a man who plays with chainsaws, blowtorches, clothing irons, chisels, and grinders, that's sage advice. But the heavy-handed tools are integral to the process of sculpting intricate, sometimes delicate, but always incredible, works of art.

Sculpting ice isn't for the weak or faint-hearted. It is very challenging work that requires passion for the art. Besides using aggressive power tools to slice and dice the ice, ice carvers need stamina. The job involves heavy lifting, working in the cold, and working on the weekends.

"And you must have attention to detail," says Finch. For precision, Finch and Maxfield use an automated, computerized sculpting tool. First, they digitize the design, and then program it into the computer. The machine does the rest with its robotic arm. They say that a client's logo can be reproduced to within 1/10,000 of an inch in accuracy to the original artwork.

There's No Business like Snow Business
Ice Sculptures Ltd.'s creations have been featured on the Discovery Channel and on Ripley's "Believe It or Not" TV show and book. Their ice sculptures have been showcased in Chef Magazine, the National Restaurant Association's magazine, MBA Jungle, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.

Maxfield's work has won numerous ice sculpting competitions including the 2008 Tour of Champions and 2nd place at the Ice Alaska World Championships. His ice has been commissioned for movie premiers, the 35th anniversary of President Ford's inauguration, and Governor Granholm's Inaugural Ball. Maxfield and Finch have created displays for celebrities and entertainers from Aerosmith to ZZ Top. Maxfield also created sculptures for the 2004 Ryder Cup, the 2006 Super Bowl, the 2007 World Series, and the 2009 NCAA Final four Championships.

There are more than 15,000 designs in Ice Sculpture Ltd.'s database. If a client can't find one he or she likes, Maxfield and Finch will custom-design one. Corporations such as Absolut, A & W Root Beer, Meijer, Rogers Department Store, and Grolsch Beer have promoted their products using Maxfield's and Finch's carvings. Corporate logos sculpted from ice packs a promotional punch, they say, and viral marketing is a key component. Photos of people interacting with an ice logo often end up on Facebook and other social networking sites.

Originally from Howell, Finch attended Oakland Community College in Detroit and went on to work over a 20-year period as department head and chef in the garde manger departments and fine dining restaurants for several prestigious hotel properties. (Garde manger means "keeper of the food" or pantry supervisor and refers to the task preparing and presenting cold foods, including ice sculpture.)

After he graduated from Rogers High School and attended classes at Grand Rapids Community College, Maxfield began his culinary career in the late 1980s at the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel, where he worked with several talented ice carvers, one of whom was Finch. While continuing to work as the sous chef at the Kent Country Club, Maxfield co-founded Ice Sculptures Ltd. with Finch in 1994.

Finch and Maxfield's creativity isn't limited to static works -- many projects feature intricate, moving parts. Finch loves creating kinetic sculptures, his favorite of which is the Ferris wheel

Maxfield enjoys sculpting water in its solid state and then seeing the metamorphosis into a liquid when melted or a gas when it sublimates. A perfect example is the partners' 2009 ArtPrize entry on the grounds of the Ford Museum. The team used a freezer truck and custom-built a double-pane glass window that wouldn't fog up. A compressor kept the environment cold for three weeks. Art-goers were treated to live ice-sculpting demonstrations set to music everyday, with a total of 60 sculptures created.

Two months of hard work went into creating the ice for the ArtPrize project. To make colored ice, the pigments must be put in a 1/8" layer, then flash-frozen to trap the color. Then it's cut apart and reassembled it to create a sculpture. What began as a 20"x40"x10" block of ice ended up as a delicate and intricate work of art.

"I know a piece is done when all the ice is removed that doesn't belong and all the details are in place," Maxfield said in their ArtPrize artist's statement. "The essential ingredient for life itself, H2O covers a staggering 70% of earth's surface. A human body comprises 60–70% water and a plant body up to 90%.

"Most sculpting is either additive or subtractive; ice lends itself to both. These displays are short lived but then again, in the greater scheme of things, so are we."

Finch and Maxfield's biggest challenge to date is the famous Mousetrap game commissioned by the Discovery Channel.

"A beautiful sculpture is one thing but bringing it to life with animation is a whole different ball game," says Finch. "And because filming was involved, we had to make sure the whole apparatus could run a number of times."

Getting away with one lucky shot was not an option. Laid out in a U-shape, the mouse trap measured 35 ft long and comprised 11 different mechanisms made out of more than 200 assembled pieces of ice, all sculpted from 4000 lbs of ice. Each of the devices were built and tested individually and then married together by adjusting their respective heights. The process took about four weeks, and the final design was not operational until just two days before filming was due to start.

A Totally Cool Profession
Finch always knew that he wanted to do something creative, and he's always been kind of a ham. It was during his employment as a chef for a major hotel that he became enthralled with the art of ice sculpting.

"Back when I first started, this occupation didn't exist," says Finch. There were no books to guide them through the challenges of ice carving. So, Finch and Maxfield co-authored a textbook, "Ice Sculpting the Modern Way," which is used by culinary schools around the world.

"It's really a hobby that pays for itself," says Finch. "When I have a day off, I'll come down here and work on a sculpture for myself." ("Here" is 188 Wealthy SE.)

Finch's job as a chef has taken him to exotic locales. But there was a downside to living in the tropics. Ice was in short supply during his two-year stint as a chef on Peter Island, a Caribbean resort that is privately owned by the Van Andel family. Finch had three blocks shipped from Puerto Rico, but by the time the ice got there, only one block had survived the trip.

In Michigan, not a problem.

Victoria Mullen is (in alphabetical order) an actress, artist, attorney, photographer, and writer based in Grand Rapids. She is originally from Milwaukee, Wis.


Ice gurus Derek Maxfield and Randy Finch (6)

Ice Sculpture -Photo Courtesy of Ice Sculptures, Ltd

Ice Sculpture -Photo Courtesy of Ice Sculptures, Ltd

Photographs by Brian Kelly -All Rights Reserved

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