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The Real Banff Blog / Published: Thu, 01/14/2016 - 03:43

Interview with an Ice Carver Burr 'Buddy' Rasmussen at Ice Magic

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January 14, 2016

By Helena Cox

From January 15- January 24 the Ice Magic festival returns to Lake Louise! The festival has been taking place for over 20 years and features celebrated ice carvers from around the world who sculpt ice in an amazing competition. This year’s theme is Earth, Wind, and Fire: Elements of Life. The ice carving competition takes place this weekend, when ten teams of two, including some of the world’s most talented ice carvers, will have 34 hours of carving time to transform 15 blocks of ice into themed masterpieces. The Real Banff wanted to learn more about what it really takes to be a successful ice carver, so we were lucky enough to spend some time with one of the participants, Burr Rasmussen, ahead of this year’s competition. Burr “Buddy” Rasmussen is one of the most creative ice sculptors in North America, competing professionally all over the world as well as creating sculptures for events and parties in his Ice Factory at the RK Group in his hometown of San Antonio, Texas. Known as one of the few carvers who creates all his work by hand, he also originated the concept of Ice Fights, when two ice sculptors fight in an ice battle in a boxing ring setting, to earn a title and the support of the crowd.  Alongside his partner Rolando De La Garza, Burr will be representing Texas in at the Ice Magic Festival this weekend.

Burr and Kim

Burr Rasmussen and his wife, Kim. 

I understand that you are from Texas, a place not known for its ice and cold weather! So I was just wondering how you got ice carving, and why?

Well I was born in Iceland and when I was about three years old my parents bought a gold mine in Alaska. They moved the whole family to this gold mine and we actually lived in there. As we were growing up we began making furniture out of ice, and that’s how it all started. It was just our family figuring it out - me and my brother who was a year older, and my sister who was very young. We made everything from our sofa to our dining table to a bed. We had a lot of ice around us! The designs weren’t very intricate back then though. I didn’t get into the real deal until I was 19 or 20 years old.

How did you then take things to the next level, deciding to make a career out of ice carving?

Well I moved to Texas when I was about 18 years old, and I actually became a chef first and then realized it was a side job of being a chef as a way to display food. You know, ice sculpture is just so beautiful to look at – so it just intrigued me from the beginning.

When you start to think about a design, how do you decide what you want to carve? When it comes to a competition like Ice Magic where does your inspiration come from?

That can be the hardest thing! Sometimes ideas just come to you and sometimes you just don’t know where to start. For this year in Lake Louise we’re trying to represent Texas within the theme which is the Elements, so we’re going to go with something based around El Día de los Muertos, which is the Day of the Dead. In South Texas, and especially for my partner Rolando who is Hispanic, Latino heritage is a huge part of our culture – so we’re really representing Texas when we come to Lake Louise this year. It changes every time, you always try and do something that’s a little bit different.

What’s your favourite ice carving that you’ve ever created?

We go to Alaska every year for the World Championships, and I have two favourites. One we did with a crucifix and it was 30 feet tall, and then we had ten stairs coming out of the front that you could walk up, and two 9 ft angels, one on each side. That was my favourite. We did another one that I really liked – it was a 30 foot guitar and we had all these little elves making it and we called it “Rock Shop” – that one was really cool too.

Stairway to Heaven

'Stairway to Heaven' carving.

What tools do you use carve?

The basic tool is the chainsaw – our big thing is “The Saw is the Law”! We are hand carvers and a lot of the industry has switched to using CNC machines. We call ourselves the “8 percenters” because there’s only a small percentage of carvers who still do everything by hand. We use the chainsaw and then we use a variety of chisels and grinders, whereas most other carvers started using a robotic machine connected to a computer. So we are the “8 percenters”, that’s our tag. If you’re an 8 percenter you carve everything by hand, you won’t touch a machine. It personalizes your designs. With the ones you put on a machine, everything comes out looking pretty much the same. When I carve a sculpture or, say, when, Junichi carves an ice sculpture, as soon as you look at it you know who the sculptor was. It has its personality, its characteristics, and you know that person did that. With a machine it’s a bit like taking a picture versus painting a painting. But they’re not allowed to use machines in competitions.

Burr in action

The Saw is the Law! Burr in action.

What is the longest it has taken you to carve a design?

We have 132 hours when we do the multi-block competition in Alaska. That is probably the longest on one particular design – 6 days straight. During that 6 day period we typically would go in at around 9am and carve until 9 or 10pm at night. And then the last couple of days we ended up having to carve until about midnight. So you’re carving for an average of about 15 hours a day.

It must get pretty tiring?

It’s very physical work. We always say that we don’t work out – we work!

How do you stay warm when ice carving?

You move. You work. You get good clothes and you work. Once you get your engine going you’ll be taking the layers off. We’ve worked in some pretty cold temperatures – we’ve seen it down in the mid 40s and almost 50 below in Alaska.

Why do you enjoy Ice Magic at Lake Louise?

The beauty has got to be the number one thing there. The Chateau, the lake, the people. It’s just beautiful there. My wife has enough time to go to one thing a year and she wanted to go to Alaska but I told her no, you really need to go to Lake Louise! I think it’s one of the top ten most beautiful places in the world. And then a lot of the great carvers go to Lake Louise. We know everybody, so it’s a great chance to see your friends too.

Destination_Signature_Chateau_Lake_Louise_Winter_Fairmont_6_Vertical

Beautiful Lake Louise in winter.

How do all the carvers get on during the competitions? Is there a bit of rivalry or does everyone get along well?

I think everybody gets along quite well. But you always want to win! You may get along really well, like Junichi, I love Junichi, but he’s the only one that I’ve never, ever been able to beat! I’ve beaten all the top guys except for Junichi! I’ve come within 4/10 of a point out of 100 points a couple of times! I love him, he’s one of my favourite carvers. He retired from Alaska, he doesn’t compete there anymore, but I would love to win against him one day! That would be a big feat!

How do you go about planning your designs?

Well we try and take a theme first, for example the Elements theme for Lake Louise, and then you’ve got to fit it into the blocks – figure out how you’re going to stack them, how you’re going to cut them and how you’re going to put them together. That takes a little bit of thought process, you’ve got to be careful.

The White Rabbit

The White Rabbit- one of Burr's creations.

What happens if you make a mistake once you’ve started?

Usually you can fix it, but it all depends on the circumstances, how bad the mistake is and if there’s a crash, if there is extra ice or there’s not. You might have to adjust the design. 9 times out of 10 you can fix it, maybe even 99 times out of 100. I can’t remember one time when I’ve not been able to fix it. Actually, that’s not true – I’ve crashed in a lot of competitions!

So a crash is what ice carvers call a situation where the sculpture falls apart?

You crash, yeah! The old saying was “Crash or win!” Sometimes you’re trying to do things that look like they shouldn’t stand up. You have temporary supports and at the end you have to take your supports out. If it stands you know it will do very well, and if it crashes you’ve got nothing. Sometimes the entire sculpture could crash. That happens to everybody from time to time. It’s pretty nerve wracking – we’ve had a couple that were scary as can be! We did a 27 ft samurai, a huge sculpture, and we had to pull a support out between his legs at the end. Everybody was coming up and telling us that it was going to crash. It was fine, but everybody psyched us out a little! I can’t tell you the rate your heart is going – you have to breathe so you don’t shake so badly! It’s pretty scary and exciting.

If I wanted to get into ice carving, how would I start?

Well you’ve got to get really lucky and be in the right place at the right time. I would advise anyone to offer to be an apprentice for free to start. Down here the blocks cost around $100 a block so just to practise it’s going to cost you a lot. Then if you also have to pay someone to teach you, you can imagine how the expense would add up just to learn. But if you can find an ice carver who you can help and learn that way, that would be my best advice. And it does take a very long time to get good too.

Burr and his Granddaughter plus 8 percent tattoo

Burr & his Granddaughter Amelia. Note the 8% tattoo!

Do you look back at your early designs and think that you’ve come a long way since then?

Yeah! I think wow, those are horrible! I didn’t carve that! And at the time you thought it was pretty good. Yeah, that happens a lot.