Block Buster

70 minutes with the St. Paul Winter Carnival’s current <br />ice-carving champ

It’s monday morning, and Trevor Pearson is dressed for a massacre. Black rubber apron. Waterproof boots. Slaughterhouse gloves. A 12-inch chainsaw waiting at his feet. The whole scene should be threatening, in a serial-killer sort of way, except that Pearson, 28, has just shaved his beard—leaving him even more sweet-faced than usual. He’s also sipping chocolate milk.

“Hey man! What’s up?” he calls, spraying water from a hose in my direction.

I’ve come to this low-slung warehouse on the outskirts of Shakopee to meet an ace ice sculptor. For two years running, Pearson has topped the carving competitions at the annual St. Paul Winter Carnival, taking first place in the single-block professional category. When he hauls his chainsaws and die grinders back to Rice Park this winter, he will do so as reigning champion. But competition isn’t really Pearson’s thing, he says. His thing is to carve commercially. Since launching his business, Metro Ice Sculptures, in the spring of 2009, he’s spent most of his days producing shrimp trays and shot luges, ice bars and corporate logos—not art, but frozen clones, ethereal and ghostly, of everyday advertisements and party props.

Today’s project? A banquet piece for a corporate event at Target Field in Minneapolis. Pearson’s assignment is to make a sushi platter with an animal—any animal—on top. Most carvers would just do a swan. But Pearson goes fully aquatic. “It’s going to be an angelfish,” he says, “weaving its way through seaweed.”  

The animal choice is telling. Pearson is, by large margin, the youngest professional carver to own a business in the state. And he only first touched chainsaw to ice in 2009. That freshman status tends to amplify his already boyish aura, and this, combined with a delicate carving aesthetic, can make him come off as the industry’s emo kid. In the jock-art realm of ice sculpting, where carvers tend to go massive and macho—fire-breathing dragons, rams locking horns in battle—Pearson keeps it tender. Last year, he won the carnival with a scene, based on a Norman Rockwell painting, of two kids playing leapfrog. The year before that, he had a pair of kittens pawing at a birdcage. It’s a style he picked up from his father, Maurie Pearson, himself a lifelong carver, who in 2008 was inducted into the National Ice Carving Association’s hall of fame. “The thing my dad always told me about competition sculpture is you gotta tell a story,” Pearson says.

Inside the warehouse, it’s morgue temperature. There’s a sour, hockey-locker-room funk—the smell of sweat drying in the cold. A 300-pound block of ice waits on a waist-high platform. Pearson grabs a V-shaped chisel and starts etching loose, swooping grooves into the face. Thirty seconds later, he’s got a cartoon outline of a fish. Fifteen more seconds, and he’s scratched out rough seaweed fronds with a drafting compass. An on-the-clock frenzy has taken over, and Pearson rapidly exchanges one tool for the next, like he’s in a nascar pit crew scrambling to change a tire. Another five seconds and he’s firing up the chainsaw.

And this is when the massacre begins. Pearson attacks the ice like it’s a Thanksgiving turkey, hacking into the block, machine-gun blasts of snow spraying into his chest. It’s brutish work. He has no guide, no drawing from which to work. But he’s rattling off calculations like he’s Rainman, shouting over the screaming grind of the saw. It’s about pitting the dimensions of the block against the shape of the fish, he says; about the need for verisimilitude against the need for structural integrity. The puffy fish emerges first as cubist sculpture, its lips and scales square-edged and blocky. Jagged chunks of ice crash to the floor. A build-up of slush coats the whole thing, obscuring the sculpture like dust on an attic antique. Pearson can barely see what he’s doing. But now he’s dropping the saw and grabbing the die grinder, a whirring screwdriver-like device. “It’s like a pencil,” he yells, cutting chevrons into the fish body. I jot down the quote. By the time I lift my head again, Pearson’s taking off the noise-reduction earmuffs.

“Done.”

“Done?” I ask.

“Well, almost.”

He grabs a hose and sprays the whole thing off. With the slush cleared, the angelfish comes into miraculous, gleaming clarity. It’s like a magic trick. Pouty, puckered lips. Triangular scales, layered and pointy. A dorsal fin like an upswept, flowing Pompadour. It literally happened too fast to witness. Ta da!

“How long did that take?” I ask.

“An hour and 10 minutes,” Pearson says, swigging the chocolate milk. “But that’s only because we were talking.”

Gregory J. Scott is Minnesota Monthly’s staff writer.

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