For three days, Todd Dawson hacked, sawed and chiseled his way through a block of ice that stood 8 feet tall – a 4-ton frozen canvas for Raleigh’s frostiest sculptor.
The Alaskan chill made Dawson’s lungs ache, the temperature dropping to a paralyzing -25 degrees.
“If it was to come up to zero,” Dawson said, “it was a heat wave.”
But after 44 hours spent attacking the ice with chainsaws, die grinders and palm sanders, a sleek, peacock-like bird emerged, bursting from its cage, the key dangling inside the open door.
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He called it “Free bird,” a title with no intended connection to the Southern rock anthem. “I love my Skynyrd now,” Dawson confessed. “But it didn’t come about that way.”
Whatever the inspiration, the sub-freezing creation by Dawson and his partner Chris Currier took first prize this month at the World Ice Art Championship in Fairbanks, wowing the judges in the single-block category. That a self-taught carver from Raleigh could beat out contestants from Finland and Russia, formidable sculptors with a far-closer kinship to ice, makes this story of local triumph even sweeter.
As Dawson sanded his bird to a high gloss, the Northern Lights shone green and yellow overhead – a celestial salute to Dawson’s icy opus.
“I asked one of the guys up there, ‘You take this for granted?’ ” Dawson said, “and he said, ‘Yep. We don’t even pay attention.’ ”
Followers of obscure competitive hobbies may know Dawson, 45, from the oversized fruit circuit. Five years ago, he grew a hog-sized watermelon that broke the state record at 282 pounds. He pampered it for months, building a bed of sand, crafting a shade tent made of foam insulation, placing rat traps around it to ward off rodent invaders.
“I have some strange interests,” he marveled.
But two decades ago, Dawson and his mother bought $100,000 worth of ice equipment, starting Ice Occasions in south Raleigh, building swan-shaped food servers for weddings and life-size replicas of the Venus de Milo. Early in the family ice venture, on something of a lark, Dawson applied a chain-saw to a 300-pound block and turned out a 40-inch vase – taking home his first best-in-show ribbon.
“Man,” he said, “I thought I won the Super Bowl.”
An ice bass followed, along with juggling clowns, marlin, mermaids and even a frozen menorah. Dawson learned to work in 16-degree cold, wearing a ski jacket, snow bibs and earphones blasting country music – partly for the tunes and partly to mute the screaming of the saw. He collected a shelf full of awards before heading north to Fairbanks for ice sculpture’s World Cup – a title he sought twice before winning this year.
“A lot of times, I just wing things,” he said. “This one took six months of planning.”
He and Currier, who teaches ice carving at Sandhills Community College, built a scaffold around their block. One sculptor shaved off slices to carve smaller pieces while the other shaped the body. On the final night, Dawson reached inside the bird cage to hang the sculpted key – a task that required taking off his coat and gloves.
“I think my body temperature dropped 20 degrees,” he said. “I could not get warm.”
And on the way home, gold medal in hand, he asked his fellow sculptor who’d been lukewarm on the Northern Lights what he missed about living in Georgia, his original home.
And in the subzero air, he told the departing Raleigh sculptor the one thing that his frozen heart pined for, the element of Southern living that a nearly-Arctic carver lacks: