Today he carves his visions out of wood or stone, but Leif Jacobson can still remember the path that led him to carve an ice swan in Vietnam.
Jacobson, now 70, operates Neighbor’s Arts, Crafts and Hobbies along Brick Street in Princeton. During the 1960s, he had experimented with clay just for fun, but sculpting became both a livelihood and a passion when he was an apprentice pastry chief at the Greenbrier Resort in White Sulfur Springs. One day, there was an opening for a new ice sculptor.
“I was one of the pastry chefs,” Jacobson recalled. “We had a couple dozen chefs and no Indians, just a couple of apprentices. The one who was doing the ice carving, his family had a bake shop up in Ohio. His father died, and he went home to take over the family business. I had expressed an interest in ice carving — I had watched him work one or two times. When he was gone, I was the ice carver.”
Jacobson soon realized that he had a lot to learn. Unlike clay or wood, ice changes quickly. It melts.
“When I started, it would take three or four hours to do one, and everyone would say, ‘That’s nice. What is it?’” he said.
Carving ice did not come naturally, but Jacobson was determined to learn the craft. The fact his supervisor, Greenbrier executive food director Hermann Rusch, loved to put on big, fancy shows, meant that he was going to get a lot of practice. Eventually, Jacobson could carve a new ice sculpture in 15 minutes. Each new piece was a learning experience.
“All of sudden, he started using ice pieces like mad,” Jacobson said. “I got to work on the parties where the ice pieces were used, and I could see how they looked when they were set up, and an hour and half when the guests came in and five hours later. I could evaluate how the ice is doing.”
Jacobson soon learned that ice carves itself; as it melts, its shape changes. The challenge was to learn how to carve the ice so the sculpture would become even more attractive as it melted.
“In the food business, the ice sculpture generally leaves the freezer an hour, two hours before the party starts,” Jacobson said. “Ice melts. If you put in too much detail and the wrong things on it, by the time the guests see it, they’re saying, ‘You should have seen it when they put it up. It was beautiful!’”
With more work and observation, the novice ice sculptor learned his craft. He found books about the subject and learned what he could do to make the ice look better. His job helped him learn. Rusch realized he had an ice sculptor who was willing and ready to carve ice and get paid almost nothing for doing it. Jacobson earned $2 for every ice block he carved; other sculptors in places like New York City, Richmond or Roanoke were getting $30 a block. Jacobson didn’t mind at all; for an apprentice, $2 a block was good.
“I was tickled pink. I was really enjoying the ice carving and I had somebody who was furnishing the ice,” Jacobson said. “I was having great fun. I wasn’t worried about the $2 or whatever they were paying me. I had somebody who was giving me something to work with. This is in the ‘60s when I first started. A block of ice cost $14. That was lot of money.”
Jacobson learned more about sculpting by occasionally taking workshops or working with artists. Sometimes he worked on jobs simply because the task could teach him something new.
“I would go out and work for nothing,” he recalled. “I would help somebody with something just to learn the process or whatever was behind it.”
Eventually, like many young men of that era, Jacobson was called upon to serve his country. He joined the Army and went on to serve for two tours in Vietnam; however, his military career did not make use of his skills at first.
Jacobson smiled. “They didn’t have me in the kitchen. The Army never does that. I ended up as a radio repairman. Then they found out I had worked at the Greenbrier and had done some ice carving.”
A general was coming to Jacobson’s sector for an inspection, so the local commanders wanted to do something special for their guest. The first task was to find some ice for Jacobson to carve and some tools. He normally used a six-prong ice pick that used to be readily available in most hardware stores, flat chisels, and sometimes an electric chain saw to “block out” a large sculpture. One time he even made his own steam knife at the Greenbrier. Tools for carving ice were not readily available in Vietnam, so he had to improvise.
“I didn’t have any tools to carve ice over there, but we did find an old block plane. I took the blade out of it, wrapped some tape around it and started carving a few things,” he said. “I did a swan sculpture punch bowl, and they filled it full of punch for a general in a combat zone.”
That party was not a one-time event. Soon other units wanted to put Jacobson’s experience to work.
“Word got out that way and I probably went to 10 or 15 different battalions for parties and events to do parties,” Jacobson said. “Over in Vietnam they didn’t have the standard 300-pound blocks of ice to do ice carving; there was only a 150-pound block.”
Jacobson came home from Vietnam and returned to the Greenbrier, but he arrived during the winter season and business was slow; so he was sent to Florida to work at the Everglades Club as a pastry chef. Once there, he met a British chef who taught him how to do butter, or tallow, sculptures and use Styrofoam and metal armatures to make sculptures. He took these new skills back to the Greenbrier. After doing a couple of pieces with the new materials, he was asked to offer workshops about ice sculpting and butter sculpture. Learning to explain his techniques to students was a new experience for Jacobson.
“I started working with them, and that’s when I learned how to carve ice, and that’s when I learned to do tallow work,” he explained. “You learn more by teaching. The teacher learns more than the student does, at least that’s the way I feel.”
Explaining how to perform a task gets the teacher to think about his or her techniques and why they use them.
“You can do something and you understand it, but you don’t know why,” Jacobson said. “You just know you can do it, but when you get somebody who asks you, ‘How do you do that?’ and you have to go back explaining it to them and help them do it, it helps you understand how you did something and why you did it. Now you’ve learned more about why you did something, so you can improve. And you don’t keep doing the same thing. Before I was teaching, I was just doing the same old things, making the same old mistakes.”
Today, Jacobson continues carving in wood and stone, and he continues to share his skills and experience. Finding the large, clear blocks of ice needed for ice sculpting is becoming more difficult since fewer ice companies make them.
“I’ve gone from ice to wood. Ice is almost not available anymore. Few ice plants in the United States are making the big 300-pound blocks of ice anymore. The process was archaic; it was not economically feasible. For restaurants and places that need blocks of ice for ice sculpture, they can buy big, individual units that freeze blocks.”
For Jacobson, all of the hard work and the effort to learn new techniques at the Greenbrier paid off. He got to do something that he loved.
“I did it on my own time and I did it for $2 a block. I was getting the material that I really enjoyed.”
From ice to wood Jacobson carves his own path in art
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