Arts & Culture » Visual Art

Carving out a Living

Ice sculptor Danny Spangler works in a melting medium


When people say to Danny Spangler, "Oh you're the artist," he turns around to look behind himself. The owner of Star-based ice-carving business Ice is Nice, Spangler is humble about his work, saying sometimes, it's hard to see himself as a typical artist.

In the get-up he wears to carve, Spangler looks like he's ready to hit the slopes. His workspace is kept well below 50 degrees. He dons a heavy sweater, a waterproof apron with a plastic bib, ski pants, boots and a ball cap to keep the ice shavings out of his hair.

Tools of his trade include a platform lift system to bring the huge chunks of ice up to a workable level, carving tools, buffers and a power saw for fine texturing. Two large Kleinbell ice machines, constantly producing 300-pound square blocks, hum in the background. Standing over one of them, Spangler bends down to take a sip of the ice cold water.

"Ice carving is half hard labor and half artistic creation," he says. "Hand tools make it more challenging. With power tools, you can work as fast as your mind is working, but with hand tools you have to wait for the physical part to catch up."

A last minute order for an ice cornucopia has Spangler scrambling. While he works, ice shavings spray freely around the room collecting and melting in his hair. A few taps on the block of ice and a big chunk gives way to reveal the shape or design Spangler had envisioned. He steps back to scrutinize the piece as the end product begins to reveal itself. As the last step, he washes the whole piece down with a high-pressure hose to round out the rough edges and make the piece glimmer.

Spangler's adventure in ice carving began in 1997 when he was invited to compete in an ice-carving contest. For twenty years he had been a chef, certainly familiar with ice, but mostly as a way to keep food cold, not as a medium in which to create art. He was wary because he says he struggled with drawing.

However, Spangler enjoyed working with ice so much that he ended up purchasing an established business and says, "Never in my life was I able to draw even stick figures. So when I first picked up the chainsaw 15 years ago, the guy I bought the business from said I was a natural."

For the first few years, Spangler said he carved pieces here and there before getting serious about creating sculptures. Since his foray into the ice-carving business, Spangler has made great strides in professional appearances and presentation.

Spangler says when he was "still a rookie," he was hired to do a carving of the Idaho State Capitol Building for Dirk Kempthorne's inaugural ball. He spent more than 50 hours perfecting the 8-foot-long, 7-foot-tall creation constructed in 32 separate pieces.

After the event, Spangler posed for a photo with Kempthorne. The newly elected governor stood in a fancy suit and tie with Spangler right beside him "in his blue jeans and ratty old T-shirt." Ever since then, he says he has learned to dress up in case he meets any more heads of state. The picture was framed and hung in Kempthorne's office during his entire term as governor.

Spangler thinks people want ice sculptures at their parties because they draw a lot of attention and are unique conversation starters. However, that touch of class doesn't come cheap. A basic ice sculpture starts at $250 (plus a $20 delivery fee).

Spangler creates simple things like vases with frozen poinsettias suspended in ice and punch bowls for buffets. He also does more unexpected objects like microscopes for scientific companies and once made a huge ice diamond surrounded by stalagmites for a local jewelry store's grand opening.

During the busy season—the start of the holidays—Spangler has to stay organized. All at once, there are special requests, not to mention private parties that might bring in tens of thousands of dollars and a stream of future business from the best source of advertising: word of mouth.

"Sun Valley is my best client," said Spangler. "Everyone is so friendly."

The rest of the season he is just trying to keep up with demand. Spangler must complete at least four sculptures a day "carving ice like a madman," he says. When he's really busy, he calls in a fellow ice-carving associate, the 2002 Olympic gold-medal winning ice-carving champion, Aaron Costic, who operates an ice carving business in Ohio.

Three years ago, Spangler and Costic worked an ice-themed New Year's Eve party in Ketchum. The delivery from Star up to Ketchum involved driving the bumpy interstate with all the sculptures loaded in two huge U-Hauls. Even though the sculptures were wrapped in sleeping bags and secured to the interior of the trucks, Spangler says he was a nervous wreck the entire trip. He thought the work would rattle and break, and they'd open the doors to find a big heap of ice chunks.

They didn't. Instead, the sculptures—which included a pair of devils with huge curved horns perched on the gate to greet guests as they arrived, a full-sized David and a replica of Michaelangelo's The Creation of Man—survived the trip just fine. "The whole place looked like something out of Narnia," said Spangler. The total cost was $18,000 worth of ice art.

The final destination was a house perched at the top of a steep, winding driveway requiring a snowplow to push the U-Haul trucks up the drive. The driver of the plow was concerned about denting the trucks, but at that point, time was ticking. Spangler yelled, "That's why we've got insurance!"

He needed to fall back on his $2 million liability insurance policy that night. Inside the spacious home, a bar made entirely of ice was set up in the dining area. The ice bars were a huge hit but unfortunately, even with precautions, toward the end of the night they melted onto the client's 100-year-old wood floors. Spangler took full responsibility for handling the cost of restoration, chalking it up to the cost of doing business.

Creating people and human features are the hardest things for Spangler to sculpt. However, he has learned techniques from other artists that have made it a little easier to bring out the facial features.

As he puts it, "You have to be right on, or you're off, and it doesn't look right."

Spangler's artistic expression has come a long way both in the amount of time he spends on a piece, to envisioning the finished product. After nearly a decade of experience, Spangler, always humble, is proud of his contributions to the art of carving ice. These days Spangler feels he has the entire process down to a science. "I don't care who calls or what they want, I feel I have enough resources to get it done," he says.