Fog wafts along the ceiling of an industrial freezer, floating above a workbench stocked with power drills, chisels, and chain saws. It’s 16°F according to the thermostat, and Jeff Pennypacker is bundled up in a heavy-duty overcoat. He activates a die grinder, its high-pitched whir bouncing off the corrugated metal walls, and bores a deep, angular groove along the surface of a three-foot-high ice cube.
Pennypacker and his business partner, Ryan Spangler, spend dozens of hours a week in this frigid workspace at Masterpiece Ice Sculptures in Asheville, crafting elegant, temporary works of art—from small sculptures to elaborate, full-service bars. Pennypacker launched the business eight years ago after discovering his talent for ice carving while working as a chef at Biltmore Estate. Steve Adams, Biltmore’s executive chef at the time, taught him the basics, and Pennypacker consulted ice carvers across the country for further advice. “I’m an aggressive learner,” he says. “I called on carvers who wouldn’t consider me competition, and I just picked their brains.”
Working from digital sketches he’s created, Pennypacker carves rough three-dimensional forms using a computer-guided cutting machine. To complete the piece, more traditional tools are employed: chain saws for refining the shape and hand chisels and power grinders for precision work. Sculptors also use blowtorches to clear blemishes in the ice and hotplates to fuse together segments.
Along with commissioned work, Pennypacker participates in regional competitions, where ice carvers face off in a high-pressure environment. “You’ve got one block of ice, an hour and a half, and a small area to work in,” he says. During one competition, Pennypacker took first prize for his sculpture of a hornet alighting on three blades of grass. “You’re basically trying to defy gravity and hope the sculpture stands up long enough for judging.”
Impressive though less stable, boldly engineered competition pieces have shorter lives than commissioned work, which lasts no more than eight hours. But Pennypacker doesn’t despair over the transient nature of his creations. “The melting really brings out the beauty in the ice,” he says. Besides, it’s the forces of nature that keep him in business.