HOME DESIGN : A SPECIAL ISSUE OF ORANGE COUNTY LIFE : The Iceman Cometh : The Medium’s Cool, but This Sculptor Enjoys a Life of Close Shaves

Patrick Mott is a regular contributor to Orange County Life

As the summer heats up, James Luff’s job could start looking pretty good to a lot of sweltering people.

For about two minutes.

That’s about how long it would take most thin-blooded, Hawaiian-shirted Orange County people to get entirely fed up with his line of work. Luff, 36, of Costa Mesa spends most of his average work day in a 12-by-24-by-8-foot freezer filled with 300-pound blocks of ice.

He bundles against the 16-degree chill in a thick ski suit, rubber boots, gloves and a war-surplus aviator helmet--with earflaps.


The setting is bleak, confining and monochromatic--nearly everything inside the freezer is white--but when you’re one of Southern California’s few ice sculptors, you’ve got to go where the work is.

For nearly six years, Luff has been turning the big blocks into swans, bluebirds, leaping fish, pagodas, Eiffel Towers, Christmas trees, seascapes, palm trees, ballet dancers, demon faces and nearly anything else that can be chain-sawed, chiseled and scraped out of frozen water.

Some creations end up on Hollywood sets, but many others weigh down large tables at Orange County parties, barbecues, soirees and corporate shindigs to the tune of several hundred dollars each.

Ice provides the sculpture-loving host with dripping drama and a centerpiece for a big spread of food without the cost of sculpting Italian marble--or the wait. Luff said he can produce, say, a swan in less time than it takes the bird to melt.


A self-taught sculptor, Luff said he was bitten by the carving bug while working as a cook in Washington. One of his colleagues, who did an occasional bit of ice carving, gave him basic instructions and quickly left him to his own devices.

“I had it in mind at the time to be a master chef,” Luff said. “But I ran head-on into ice carving and fell in love with it.”

He admitted that before his venture into the cold he “never could do anything artistic. My drawing was just so-so.”

However, working in three dimensions--and in a medium that allowed for easy repairs and correction of mistakes--progressively brought out Luff’s creative nature.


To date, his work has been featured in scenes from movies (“Dragnet,” “Beverly Hills Cop,”) and TV (“The Love Boat,” “Hotel,” “Matlock,” “The Colbys”), as well as at several private and corporate functions.

He is now working on figures of a sailfish, a shark, a flying fish and a descending eagle gripping a fish in its talons for the Thursday opening of Scott’s Seafood Grill & Bar in Costa Mesa.

He has also had local clients who simply wanted an ice sculpture--or two or three--for nothing more than a back-yard party, although the parties tend to be a cut above the ordinary.

For instance, he said, he is working on seven-foot replicas of the Eiffel Tower and the Statue of Liberty for a Bastille Day party in a client’s back yard.


The client, he added, plans to float the Statue of Liberty on a makeshift island in the middle of his swimming pool.

Luff has used saws, chisels and an electric router to hew out huge policebadges, a replica of the Transamerica Pyramid in San Francisco, a pair of elephants for a George Deukmejian fund-raising dinner--even a pair of human lungs for display on the cover of a medical magazine.

“People get real crazy with ice, with some of the things they want,” he said.

The creative process begins with the manufacture of the 300-pound rectangular blocks in one of Luff’s tanks, which agitates the water during freezing to eliminate air in the block and give it a solid, crystalline appearance. He diagrams the design on paper --the “most tedious” part of the process--then freezes a paper template to the block.


A small chain saw is used to carve out the basic shapes. The router, chisels and pruning saws are applied to further shape and smooth the sculpture.

Larger sculptures are carved in separate pieces. For instance, the sailfish design and the wave from which it is shown leaping are cut from three separate blocks. The finished product, Luff said, will weigh about 325 pounds and cost the client about $650.

The most intricate design he has created, he said, was one requiring 22 1/2 blocks: a pair of ballet dancers for use on “The Colbys.” It cost $5,000.

Pieces are fused together with a type of mortar made from shaved ice and water, with “the consistency of mashed potatoes,” Luff said.


The same forgiving technique can be used if a piece of the sculpture breaks off during carving, he added.

It is assembly-line work. Luff said he usually turns out 20 to 25 carvings a month during most of the year. However, during the Christmas season, he said, he often works 18 to 20 hours a day and chisels and saws out more than 100 creations a month.

People are fascinated by ice carvings because “they’re there one minute, and then they’re gone,” he said, snapping his fingers.

The brief life of his designs does not bother him: “As they start melting down, they retain the same basic shape, but they change. The art form changes.”


And, he said, smiling, he keeps photographs of his work in its pre-melted stages in a scrapbook.