Kris Wilson looks at a block of ice in the same way a painter would gaze at an empty canvas. For the 42-year-old Juneau photographer and seaman, ice is art.
A homecoming is in store for Wilson when he returns to Fairbanks on Tuesday to compete in the British Petroleum's World Ice Art Championships, an event produced by Ice Alaska.
Wilson began ice sculpting in 2004 and will compete in the event for his fifth time. He considers ice sculpting a celebration of water life.
"I study the life of movement through water and water around objects," he said. "It's the whole hydrodynamic thing that has evolved in life!"
And although he's never won first place - once placing 10th in the Realistic category in 2007 - Wilson welcomes the challenge of competing against professionals, and the opportunity to learn a few new tricks.
"I've always left with a new inspiration," Wilson said of the competitions. "Every year becomes a new challenge in technique. You pick up techniques from watching other sculptors. I can always come back next year with something I've learned from the previous (competition)."
On Tuesday, Wilson will compete in the 60-hour Single Block Classic competition, a qualifying event for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. For the event, teams of no more than two members must sculpt one block of ice weighing about 7,800 pounds.
Officials provide sculptors with as much scaffolding as needed, but a considerable challenge in the single block event is once the ice block is positioned, sculptors can't use powered devices to reposition the ice.
"You can use mechanical advantage, but at the end of that line or cable is going to be a set of hands," Wilson said. "If you wanted to go up 50 feet with your sculpture in the single block, you could, providing that you provide a safety net of distance around the piece. There's been people that have gone up 16 to 20 feet without a problem, but you kind of reach the limits of time and fragility."
One of the competitors Wilson was most impressed with was Junichi Nakamura, a master ice sculptor from Hokkaido, Japan. Nakamura sculpted a praying mantis in the 2007 Multi-Block Classic competition to win first place in the realistic category.
"It was so cold," Wilson recalled, "and how he was able to work and complete and glue together all that stuff is a mystery to most sculptors, including myself."
Wilson said he was invited to compete in the 132-hour multi-block competition this year, but is still considering whether he will participate.
That competition, which starts March 1, gives teams of two to four sculptors 10 blocks of ice, weighing a minimum of 46,000 pounds, to work with. Because the sculptures created sometimes attain heights of more than 25 feet, Ice Alaska provides heavy equipment and operators to lift and reposition the ice.
Two other events at the championships: the Amateur Open exhibition, for artists to try sculpting without the pressure of competing; and the Junior World Ice Art Championships, a competition for high-school students.
"We try and encourage people to be bold in getting into ice," Wilson said, "and we make every effort to bring in new artists and new visionaries who may have never sculpted ice."
Ice Alaska may have to find a new home next year as it's current lease will soon expire. But at the moment, the biggest concern is preparing for this week's flurry of activities.
"The most pressing issue is getting ready for all the 157 artists and 450 volunteers who are coming here," Ice Alaska chairman Dick Brickley said.
Founded in 1989, Ice Alaska is a nonprofit corporation driven by 90 committees, a nine-member Board of Directors and more than 400 volunteers. As an international event, this year's competition will host ice artists from more than 20 different countries.
In fact, many of Wilson's fellow competitors are successful ice sculptors from around the world. Jeff Stahl, owner of Artic Diamond in Cincinnati, Ohio, was asked to do the ice bar for the Super Bowl tailgate party two years in a row, and Mario Amegee, of Monaco, has produced sculptures for Prince Albert II's banquet table, according to Wilson.
"(Mario) started off as just a bucket slogger carrying milk in this creamery," Wilson said, "and then he worked his way into working alongside the head sculptor for the ice sculpture side of the creamery, and now he's the head sculptor."
Even the lead sculptor of the Ice Hotel in Sweden, Steve Brice, made an appearance a few years ago, Wilson said.
Aside from meeting many of the top ice sculptors in the world, Wilson said the most enjoyable part of the annual competition is getting to see his friends and family.
"To date, it's been like a homecoming or a family reunion each year," he said.
Wilson said he enjoys sharing his and other sculptors' work through his photographs, which can be seen at www.icealaska.com. He also hopes youth and adults alike can learn to appreciate the sport.
"It's not really a talent you're born with," Wilson said. "The ability to learn ice sculpting is not beyond everyone's grasp. ... So as far as repetition or repeatability or scaleability in the arts, ice offers a new medium they may have never considered."
Entry fee for each competition is $100, which includes room, board and transportation from the airport.
All competitions can be viewed online at www.icealaska.com. The lighting and awards ceremony for the single block competition will be held at 8 p.m. on Friday. The multi-block ceremony will be at 8 p.m. on March 7.
Contact Neighbors editor Kim Andree at 523-2272 or email@example.com.