What It’s Like to Be a First Night Ice Sculptor

Julian Chapelle has been chipping ice with a chainsaw for 13 years.

Photo via Don Chappelle

Photo via Don Chapelle

The first time Julian Chapelle got to contribute to an ice sculpture at Boston’s First Night festivities was in 2001, on a piece that was called “Mush.”

“As for my contribution that year, I was getting in the way and dulling all the tools. I had no idea what I was doing,” he said, reflecting on his time trying to whittle away chunks of ice to create a jaw-dropping piece of frozen art that would attract attention during the New Year’s Eve celebrations.

Fast forward more than a decade and Chapelle’s talents, handed down by his father, Don Chapelle, owner of Brilliant Ice Sculpture, which has been crafting the ice artwork for First Night for the last 25 years, have vastly improved.

“I’ve learned a lot. Like how not to dull a very expensive imported Japanese ice chisel, among other things,” he said.

Chapelle, a full-time bartender at a brewery, who chisels ice sculptures on the side with his dad, took some time to chat with Boston about what it’s like to spend hours each day meticulously shaping grooves into large blocks of ice for the annual holiday.

How long have you been sculpting?

I help with the sculptures only a couple weeks out of the year. I’ve always been drawn to sculpture since a young age. I’ve worked with ceramic, wood, stone and metal as well as ice. I was taught from an early age that anything you have passion for can become art. I originally went to school for a degree in engineering from UMass Lowell. I didn’t enjoy it as I much as I thought I would, and what’s the point if you don’t enjoy what your doing?

Is it difficult to learn how to maneuver a chainsaw to shape the ice?

There is technique for every tool we use. Chainsaws are for removing larger masses of ice and shaping. More finely honed technique and artistic skill comes with tools for detail work, like ice chisels. Ultimately like anything else, it takes a good teacher and time.

How long, typically, does it take to sculpt a block of ice?

Each piece takes on a life of it’s own. A singular block destined to become a gourmet shot luge could take an intense amount of work to suspend elements inside the ice as it freezes even before any carving is done to it. Whereas a single block basic swan, which is one of the first pieces an ice sculptor learns, I’ve seen completed with a chainsaw in only a few minutes.

What about First Night sculptures?

As for the First Night sculptures, we start throwing ideas out for the following year when we take our lunch breaks. The planning and sketching goes all year-round, and the actual sculpting of smaller elements starts in our freezers weeks before. We often have a few large works each year in a few locations around the city. The onsite work takes place the whole week leading up to New Year’s Eve.

I’m sure there is a lot of patience involved. What do you do to stay focused and on point when sculpting?

Always, always have all hands on site pay attention when we move any block higher than waist level, and pay attention to the power tools around you and the web of extension cords. But the faster we finish, the faster we’re out of the cold. It’s a great motivator.

Don, my father and principal sculptor, was trained as a master Chef. Anyone who has worked with him can tell you he can keep a team in line and driven towards a goal. The team we work with are all friends that have joined us year after year.  Many are chefs, people who not only work hard under extreme conditions and circumstances in close proximity with sharp objects, but revel in it. We all keep our heads on a swivel and look out for each other.

You’ve been doing this for about 13 years. What’s your favorite sculpture to date that you have worked on?

There have been many memorable sculptures—each has [brought] a unique experience and challenge. Building a 20-foot tall ice lighthouse for “Oystermen” with a working light at the top was fun and interesting. Quite a memorable scene happened on “Out of Africa”— it involved a mix up and having to swap the heads from the neck up on two life-sized giraffes. Chainsaws were involved.

Looking back, “Here Fishy Fishy” might have been my favorite finished pieces. After we finished [that one] we all stayed a little longer that year to take it in.

Is completing a sculpture a team effort? Or an individual challenge?

Both. We all have roles in the creation of the larger pieces. All are as physically taxing as [they are] challenging. There is a great deal of manual labor involved in moving each block. The blocks can range from 300 to 400 pounds. We all sculpt. The more experience, the closer the detail work. Some of the detail tools have enough torque that they can pull themselves from your hands if you don’t keep a firm grasp. Hours of detail work can be more taxing than actually moving and setting blocks.

Once you’ve chipped away at a block, what tools do you use to do the detailed work?

What most people see in the movies is someone set down a chainsaw and walk away from a finished piece. It’s not at all that simple. The chainsaw takes the rough mass away. Then ice specific Japanese chisels of varying size and shape contour and define the piece.  We also use some off the shelf tools you’d find at Home Depot as well, with slight modifications and certain unique bits and attachments designed specifically for ice sculpting. They create a wealth of textures and effects that can bring more definition and substance to a medium that’s transparent. The most impressive finishing touch when finished is a quick pass with an industrial flamethrower that removes any frost and gives the ice a beautiful clear sheen.

How does it make you feel contributing to such a big annual event, and sharing your sculptures?

It’s amazing to get the chance to be part of something like this. The year of planning sketches, and the weeks of sculpting culminate on the 31st. It’s a get feeling being surrounded on First Night by hundreds of people who travel to the city to enjoy our hard work. I still get contacted by friends that I grew up with that have moved across the country who continue to follow and enjoy the sculptures. It brings us all a great deal of pride that we get to share it with so many.