Chambersburg transforms itself with frosty IceFest
CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. — Ice sculptor extraordinaire Ernie DiMartino has a regular afternoon appointment at his local yoga studio.
“I get my best ideas when I’m doing yoga,” DiMartino said during a telephone interview before getting ready to slip into his class.
For 28 years, DiMartino, owner of DiMartino Ice Co. in Jeannette, Pa., has been turning 10-by-20-by-40-inch blocks of ice weighing 265 pounds into limited works of art.
For the last 15 years at Chambersburg’s IceFest, the handiwork of DiMartino and his crew has been the centerpiece of the event.
From Thursday, Jan. 26 through Sunday, Jan. 29, downtown Chambersburg will celebrate all that is icy during the annual IceFest. The event kicks off from 5 to 8 p.m. Thursday and will continue throughout the weekend at various downtown locations.
Penny Shaul, one of the IceFest chairwomen, said there will be plenty of ice carvings to see at this year’s event.
“This is the most ice we ever had,” she said.
There are 75 single-block sculptures, thanks to the 75 sponsors, as well as 13 giant sculptures that will be carved on-site. That doesn’t include the popular ice slide.
One of the newest events is a kids’ obstacle course from noon to 3 p.m. Sunday. Shaul said prizes will be given away every hour.
“It’s just amazing the excitement it brings downtown,” she said of IceFest.
Ice to art
This is DiMartino’s busiest time of year. Practically every weekend from Thanksgiving to March, he has an event scheduled.
“We’re like a circus. We pack up our stuff, travel to the site, put on a show, then pack it all back up and leave,” he said.
When DiMartino started, he said the first thing his company had to learn was that the right type of ice was needed.
“Back when we started, the ice wasn’t clear. It had some cloudiness to it, like the ice cubes you make at home,” he said.
The cloudiness, he said, detracted from the beauty of the pieces, so now the company purchase specialty ice that is so “crystal clear that you can read a newspaper through it.”
DiMartino said he’ll be transporting 81 carvings from his ice house to IceFest, then he’ll carve more than 200 blocks of ice on-site. The ice slide alone is made with 75 blocks. This year, the demand for sculptures was so great that he had to reach out to three companies to provide enough ice for the event.
DiMartino said he works closely with Shaul on the designs each of the IceFest sponsors wants. He’s had to tell Shaul that what looks nice on paper doesn’t translate well to ice or that physics will prevent him from carving a piece the way a sponsor envisions it.
He makes certain that ideas aren’t repeated from sponsor to sponsor or even from year to year.
“That’s the hardest part, satisfying the sponsor, satisfying the organizers of the event and satisfying the spectator,” he said.
When it comes to carving tools, DiMartino said almost anything goes, including chisels, electric sanders, sandpaper and even a household iron.
“We’re discovering new tools all the time,” he said.
His favorite tool to carve with is his reliable Makita chain saw.
DiMartino is proud that his company still does carving by hand for events, while many companies are using computer programs that carve ice at their ice houses before transporting works to shows.
“That’s something I don’t want to do,” he said of using technology for carving.
He said carving by hand in front of patrons adds to the show.
“I think that it’s very important for people see us do our work,” DiMartino said. “At a lot of shows, these people show up with the ice (sculptures) and leave. (The visitors) don’t get to experience the reward.”
DiMartino, 62, said he’ll bring a crew with him because he won’t be doing much of the carving. He now is more of an on-site coordinator for large events.
“I’m walking a lot more than I’m carving,” he said. “I’m on my feet from 9 o’clock in the morning to 9 o’clock at night.”
When working with ice, DiMartino said the crew tries to anticipate everything it can, but it has no control over Mother Nature. He said the workers can battle rising temperatures by packing blocks of ice with dry ice and wrapping them with a special foil.
But rain is his enemy for two reasons. The first is that no one wants to come out in the rain to see the carvings. But most importantly, rain can damage the sculptures.
One year at IceFest, it rained so hard that the sculptures had to sit on a freezer truck for two days before they could be brought out, he said.
DiMartino has his favorite works.
“Anything that’s ornate, anything that is living,” he said.
A piece he is partial to was carved into the tree pose used in yoga.
The most challenging sculpture he recalled was for last year’s event. He was asked to carve a sculpture on the pedestal on which the fountain in downtown Chambersburg once stood. The fountain was being repaired at the time. He had to rent special equipment to get ice into the fountain and had to stop traffic downtown.
The traffic was closed for a few hours, but, “it took us longer to sculpt it than it did to get it in the fountain,” he said.