Art with a short shelf life

"If you want me again," Walt Whitman once wrote in a famous poem about the regeneration of life, "look for me under your boot-soles."

If you want to find Thomas Selzer's art at Orange Coast College, you can look in the same place.

Selzer, the college's general manager of instructional food service operations, has a side passion that has helped to make the campus eye-catching — and watered its greenery at the same time.

The Laguna Niguel resident is a professionally trained ice carver whose sculptures have dotted OCC's grounds on numerous occasions. And because, like all ice carvings, they're destined to melt, he's conveniently placed some of them above grass and other water-hungry plants.

Given that Selzer's art has a life span of a few hours, his individual pieces don't allow for much of a legacy. But this month, he'll leave something else behind: the knowledge of his craft. On each Friday in April, Selzer will lead ice-carving classes in the Le Bard Stadium Field House, teaching students to create punch bowls, tables and more.

The week before class, Selzer took a break from his chainsaw and other tools to talk about his history with an unusual medium. The following are excerpts from the conversation:


I see that you're a certified professional ice carver from the Academy of Ice Carving and Design. I have to say that's No. 1 on the list of academies I didn't know existed when I got up this morning. How did you become affiliated with them?

Let's see — it's been about four, five years ago. I've always been an ice carver since I graduated from college, actually, here in 1985. I worked at Hilton hotels then, and that actually started my passion for ice carving. So later on, here at Orange Coast College, I really wanted to bring some of that, what I had learned and studied, and worked on a grant to get some equipment for the students so they could enhance their learning of ice carving. And so I went to the ice-carving school there — I think it's outside of Sacramento — and just honed my skills a little bit more and brought that back to share with the students.

Do you remember what the first thing was that you ever carved in ice?

First thing, let's see, was a swan. No, no, take that back — it was a violin. That would have been here at Orange Coast College. But the first thing I ever did with an actual ice carver that was training me — and his name was Suishi Kono, great Japanese chef, Japanese ice carver, and he taught me a lot of my craft. And the first thing he really taught me was a swan. And he said, "Just keep doing it and doing it. Don't be afraid of it breaking or whatever." You know, it's just water. Maybe frozen, but it's just water.

Yeah, I would imagine when you're carving a block of ice, you would have to be really careful about it breaking. Is there a technique to hitting the ice just the right way?

Well, having very sharp tools is really important. Probably one of the first things I instruct to a student is to make sure it's tempered. And that means that if you bring it outside of the freezer, it has to kind of equal the temperature that is outside, and it takes about three hours for that process to occur. And if you still see little frosts on the ice, like you see on an ice cube, it's gonna crack right away when you put a piece of equipment into it. So that's really an important part of starting the whole process.

A lot of the time when I think of ice carving, I think of Bill Murray carving Andie MacDowell in the movie "Groundhog Day." Have you ever seen that movie?

Yeah, quite a while ago. I don't remember that scene, though.

Have you ever carved a beautiful woman in ice?

Uh, a mermaid. I guess she was beautiful.

When you make an ice sculpture, how long does it usually last?

It really depends on a lot of things — whether it's indoors. Outdoors, it's gonna melt a lot faster. If sun hits it, it can actually get fissures and dissolve quite quickly. So you want to protect it as much as you can. But really, three, four, five hours, maybe more. It just depends on the sculpture. The thinnest parts will melt the fastest, so the larger the parts, the longer the ice carving would last.

Is it usually a public thing when you're actually carving the sculpture? Do people sit and watch you do it?

Typically not, 'cause sometimes I'm in the freezer, and I don't know if the public wants to be in the freezer. Usually when I'm carving ice, I'm demonstrating or showing students how to carve ice.

What kind of occasions have you carved ice for in the past?

Lots of events. At Hilton, we did a lot of the ice, and they happened to be swans for the opening of the [Orange County] Performing Arts Center, here in Costa Mesa. And they did, like, a swan pyramid because the theme was — oh, some ballet or something. "Swan Lake," I guess. So that kind of fit in appropriately. It depends on the client. They might have a theme, and then you try to match that theme. One time, I did the Mad Hatter of "Alice in Wonderland," and that was a particular character that this client liked.

It depends on the themes. Just recently, last year — we have, every year, a special event on campus called Honors Night. It's a fundraiser for scholarships, for students that win these scholarships, and our theme was based on Africa, so we had lions and tigers and elephant carvings and those type of things.

What's the largest thing that you've ever carved out of ice?

Well, it would be pieces. Probably the largest thing was — I've done a lot of large items here, but many years ago, with Hilton, we did a reopening for one of the Hiltons in L.A., so they had a fire-and-ice theme going on. I worked with Suishi Kono, so we made a huge dragon that was probably 30 feet long and 10 feet tall. It had fire coming out of it later, so that was cool.

Does it ever bother you that the sculptures don't last very long?

It's part of the beauty. [laughs] They actually kind of become beautiful as they're melting, so that's part of the process.

If You Go

What: Ice-carving classes with Thomas Selzer

Where: Le Bard Stadium Field House, Room 110, Orange Coast College, 2701 Fairview Road, Costa Mesa

When: 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. April 4, 11, 18 and 25

Cost: $50 per class

Information: (714) 432-5154 or

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