The Ice Man : His Work Has Graced Parties, Movie Sets, Wedding Receptions


As the mercury crept into the 80s one day last week, James Luff bundled up in a heavy jacket, rain pants, two pairs of gloves and insulated boots to go to what may be Orange County's coolest summer job: ice sculpting.

"It's definitely a way to escape the heat," said Luff, who has been a professional ice sculptor for the past 10 years.

While others flocked to the beaches to bask in the summer sun, Luff closed himself inside his freezer-studio in Costa Mesa and went to work on a 300-pound ice cube.

As the temperature hovered at 16 degrees, Luff first took a lightweight chain saw to gently outline the figure he wanted to sculpt.

"I can look and see what I want to carve inside it," Luff said.

Then with sweeping strokes of the saw, he chopped away large chunks of ice and a pair of wings and the long neck of a swan began to emerge. Gradually, the swipes of the saw gave way to precision strokes as Luff defined the slope of the breast, the curve of neck.

For the final touches, Luff used a pruning saw and a large fork to smooth away the rough edges and detail the feathers of his three-foot-tall swan.

After several hours of work--and one or two breaks outdoors to warm his hands and feet--Luff's latest creation was ready to stand as a sparkling centerpiece for a party, where it would immediately begin to melt.

Luff professes not to mind the ephemeral nature of his art.

"I don't feel bad seeing it melt. I enjoy watching the people's reactions, the oooohs and ahhhhhs. . . ," he said. "It's like cooking a good meal for someone. They enjoy it. Then it's gone."

Nonetheless, Luff has been dabbling in wood carving recently. "It would be nice to have something a little more permanent," he said.

Luff, 37, is one of few ice sculptors to make his own ice.

Most carvers buy their ice from manufacturers who typically use a freezing system that circulates air through the water as it hardens.

As the block freezes from the outside in, imperfections form, most noticeably a cloudy white core.

Luff uses six specially designed freezers that circulate water though the block as it freezes, causing it to harden from the bottom. Without the air bubbles, the finished blocks of ice are as clear as crystal.

"It takes three days to make a block of ice, but it's worth the wait," said Luff, who also sells his 40- by 20- by 10-inch blocks to other ice sculptors.

Luff said he got hooked on ice carving while working as a cook in Vancouver, Wash., and saw a chef carving a block of ice for a buffet table centerpiece.

"He showed me the tools . . . how to use them and told me to go to it. That was my first lesson. After that, I knew ice carving was what I wanted to do."

His works have graced the tables of parties, movie sets, business functions and wedding receptions.

He created the swan centerpiece in "Beverly Hills Cop" and the mermaid in "Dragnet."

He even sculpted a pair of lungs that were featured on the cover of a medical journal.

By far the largest sculpture he did was a replica of the Egyptian Sphinx that used 90 blocks. The entire project cost about $18,000.

In an average month, Luff carves between 30 and 40 sculptures.

Most sell for a couple hundred dollars to several thousand dollars depending on their complexity and size.

After completing his swan last week, Luff looked outside at the midday sun and admitted that the frigid environs of his studio are not always the place to be in summer.

"Getting away from the heat is nice, but it also would be nice to enjoy the sunny days sometimes," he said with a smile.

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