Ice sculptor David Van Camp plans to freeze audiences in their tracks at St. Charles' Fête de Glace

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Eventually, any serious artist and his chosen medium become well acquainted. The sculptor of clay knows where the air bubbles will hide in the bowl; the painter knows the smell of his favorite brand of oils; the architect knows where sound echoes most in the hall. To watch David Van Camp work with ice is to see how he makes this medium bend to his will almost effortlessly.

First he sketches out an idea on paper. He may then construct a cardboard stencil of the proper shape and size to place directly on the slab of ice or elect to begin the job freehand. He uses an icepick to trace the image. He then frees the rough shape from a block of ice with a chainsaw, an arc of snow cascading behind him from the growling blades. Then he refines that shape using a drill fitted with one of various specialized or standard bits. Finally he turns to his Japanese ice-carving hand tools for the detail work. What has he created? Perhaps an insurance-company logo, or the peacock popular at Indian weddings, or -- if he is competing against other sculptors at an event -- something more unusual, like a cowboy sitting in an outhouse. The final product is sanded with an electric hand sander for a smooth, clear sheen, washed of random slush with water from a hose, then stored in a walk-in freezer until it's time for delivery.

Van Camp, who claims to be the area's only full-time ice sculptor (most work primarily as chefs), carves several pieces each day for private and corporate clients. Yes, he can make you a swan. He is often asked to sculpt the lovebirds in thrall, or the leaping dolphins for weddings. But his mettle is only really tested when he performs at an ice-sculpting competition, like Saturday's F ê te de Glace in St. Charles. It is at contests such as these where he has turned the 2-by-2-by-4-foot ice blocks into a towering 12-foot jack-in-the-box with grotesque face or a cat looking hungrily through a windowpane at a bird in a birdbath. This stuff is art, however fleeting, and this ain't no bar mitzvah.

The F ê te de Glace offers competition for l5 two-person professional teams, including three chefs ranked among the top five ice sculptors in the U.S. by a trade organization, and a separate contest for 30 amateurs working alone. Sculptors receive five blocks to work with and are judged by local chefs. Prize money of $5,000 is at stake, and, unlike certain competitions, there will be no theme. This means that the sculptors are free to create whatever they desire and have plenty of time to plan ahead. (Van Camp says he is contemplating creating something involving a seahorse, an animal he has sculpted before.)

Last year, Van Camp placed second in the professional division of the F ê te de Glace, and that was both because he is truly skilled at this art and because he gets plenty of practice.

At his Ice Visions studio, located in an unassuming Kirkwood industrial court, he created close to 1,000 sculptures last year for commercial and private clients. Taking 300-pound ice blocks from one of his seven ice-making machines, each of which freezes two blocks at a time and is never turned off, he dollies the slabs into a carving room kept at 60 degrees or so, which softens the ice as he cuts it.

Outfitted in snow pants, suspenders and rubber boots, the artist carves sculpture after sculpture each workday. He says he is typically quite busy with orders, and during the winter holiday-party season, he barely has time to return home and sleep between shifts.

The ice that Van Camp uses is remarkably clear, much more so than the stuff you'll get from your freezer. How this is accomplished is apparently a business secret. He admits that he does use purified water to make his blocks but will reveal no more: "Let's just say that it's conditioned," he says.

Van Camp photographs many of the ice sculptures he creates in order to show clients. Some of his more exotic productions include polo players, a polar bear climbing a mountain, a baby grand piano, kissing penguins, a saxophone, a palm tree, a hammer-and-sickle, the downtown St. Louis skyline, a lion's head, a wine rack full of actual chilling bottles of Champagne and an actual Christmas tree with working lights embedded within an ice tree. His remarkably elaborate sculptures include the Eiffel Tower, some immensely sized corporate logos, a suspension bridge, a trilevel yacht, a perfect replica of the Chase Park Plaza and Chinese pictograms.

A catalog from one of the ice- sculpture contests in Japan in which Van Camp competed reveals the extremes to which the art can go. A massive bodybuilder with realistic muscle definition, a dancing Medusa, mountain climbers clinging to frozen cliffs and all manner of detailed tableaux of figures frozen in action make the ubiquitous wedding swan seem quite minor. Some of the more serious competitions last more than 24 hours, with sculptors forcing themselves to stay awake to complete their marathon projects.

The F ê te de Glace, one of very few competitions held in the St. Louis area, is not so intense. Carvers will do their thing at several spots spread over five blocks of North Main Street in St. Charles. Patio fireplaces will warm onlookers, and hot chocolate will be for sale.

In an episode of the vastly underappreciated TV show Northern Exposure, amateur philosopher Chris urges Holling to throw his recently completed painting of a rustic scene into the furnace. It is only through painful destruction that the cycle begun with proud creation can fully be known, Chris maintains. It's something the ice carvers understand as their beautiful art is completed and then left to melt in the sun.

The F ê te de Glace takes place from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 29, along North Main Street in St. Charles. Call the Greater St. Charles Convention and Visitors Bureau, 946-7776, for more information.

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