The Story Behind the Winter Fest Ice Sculptures

FVTC students work on an ice sculpture for Fish Creek’s annual Winter Festival, and college credit.

Friday morning, as Fish Creek prepares for its annual Winter Festival weekend, a dozen Fox Valley Technical College (FVTC) culinary art students will create chilly, life-size art to complement the winter celebration. By the end of the afternoon, the students’ finished ice sculptures will be placed in front of various Fish Creek businesses.

The collaborative tradition, bringing art to the festival and education to the students, began when Winter Fest organizer Tom Young spoke with Jeffrey Igel, aka “Chef Jeff,” who teaches culinary arts at FVTC. “I was talking to the chef,” says Young, “and asked, ‘Do you ever travel?’”

“Last year there were 12 sponsors,” explains Young, “Businesses around Fish Creek which donated $100 for each sculpture – which pays for the ice essentially.”

Apple Creek Resort in Fish Creek donates rooms for the students, who are treated to a dinner party on Thursday night when they arrive. They will begin carving around 10 – 11 am Friday morning, and return to FVTC in the evening.

“Last year they carved around town at the sponsored business,” says Young, “but the professors had to run from site to site, so this year the carving will all take place at Clark Park at the tent and they will distribute them to the businesses.”

Unlike other visual arts – paintings, ceramics, even literature – ice sculptures lack permanency. Because of this, one may forget what a skill and art form ice sculpting actually is. It takes a certain someone to create a piece of art that will literally melt away.

Ryan Schroeder is an instructor of the culinary arts at FVTC and an experienced ice sculptor. He along with culinary arts instructors Craig Hribal and Gary Lyons will accompany the students to Door County for Winter Fest.

A horse sculpted by FVTC’s ice sculpture students is on display in front of the Blue Horse Bistro at last year’s Winter Festival.

“Really, the students coming to carve don’t really have carving experience,” he says. “The class starts [mid-January]. Everything they do, it’s just the beginning.”

Schroeder, who has been sculpting since the early ‘90s when he was creating sculptures for the Sister Hotel in Milwaukee, explains the process, step by step: “First, think of your theme or creative theme – you start with that. Create a template for the block of ice; attach the template to the ice; cut away the large empty pieces. You make it 1-D, go to the side and make it 2-D, then 3-D, then you’ll detail that.”

“Students will design their own template. I may help with some,” he continues. “I’ll probably be mentoring, with them not doing any previous carving work.”

When asked how long it usually takes to complete an ice sculpture, Schroeder laughs, “It will take them hours – four hours maybe. Back in the day, when I was doing it all the time, it took me an hour or less. I guess on average two to three hours.”

The grading will be “pretty lenient,” he adds. “We’ll see what they do, how they learn – more grades will be applied at school.”

Among many other options, Schroder says tools for ice sculpting include handsaws, ice picks, ice shavers, chisels, groove chisels, chainsaws, irons, hair dryers, heat gun, everything – sometimes just sandpaper.

When it comes to tricks of the trade, Schroder says, “Basically your taking a rectangular block of ice and removing what you don’t want there.”

FVTC’s ice sculpture students and instructors pose with a sculpted wine bottle at last year’s Winter Festival.

The condition of the ice is a whole other element of the art. “If the ice is too cold it will shatter,” says Schroder, “it needs to be tempered, 30 degrees or so, it’s softer. It’s easier to cut smoothly, to work with chisels. Also, when it’s tempered, it’s clear; when it’s cold, it’s cloudy.”

Ice sculpture may seem a curious elective, though Schroeder says for those in the culinary arts, it’s a valuable skill to have. “It’s a way to make extra money,” he says. “You can do it on the side. If you’re good, it’s a couple hundred bucks. And if you’re artistic and creative, it’s a way to show that off.”

Schroeder is looking forward to his first visit to Door County in the winter season. Instructor Hribal accompanied the students last year and says, “Door County is a beautiful area, very unique in its offerings. It offers its guest an old world feeling and timely splendor. The students were very busy with setting up for the ice sculpting and really enjoyed the community event.”

For more information about Winter Festival, visit