In the walk-in freezer at Ice Sculpture Philly, in an industrial corner of West Philadelphia, ice sculptures meant for dozens of weddings, concerts and conferences sit trapped in suspension — some of them generic decorations, others custom-made for celebrations that have been delayed for months or may not happen at all.
“They’re like ghosts,” ice sculptor Peter Slavin said.
On a crisp Mother’s Day morning, Slavin decided to set one free.
He loaded the glistening, 200-pound ice “LOVE” sculpture into his truck and delivered it to a plywood-covered pedestal overlooking the Schuylkill, where a politically controversial Viking statue had loomed until it was toppled and submerged a few years back. Then, with a swipe of a blowtorch, he polished it to glassy clarity, stepped back, and let the selfies ensue.
Slavin and his employees, who used to churn out around three dozen sculptures a week, have been out of work since the coronavirus shut down events two months ago. So, Slavin has been making new sculptures, a few each week, to install around the city. This guerrilla ice sculpting is Slavin’s way of connecting, sending out little sparks of hope and humanity amid the gloom.
“Instead of getting depressed," he said, "we’re trying to do what we can do — to have some fun, get my guys working, and keep my brain flowing.”
Slavin, 56, a former chef, made his first ice sculpture when he was 18, for a St. Patrick’s Day promotion at a l Bennigan’s in Cherry Hill.
In the 30 years since, he has built Ice Sculpture Philly into something halfway between manufacturing facility and sculpture studio. He makes his own crystal-clear ice blocks from Philadelphia tap water, uses a CNC (computer numerically controlled) machine he installed in a freezer to carve them into shapes like unicorns and “LOVE” sculpture knock-offs, and then uses chisels and custom drill bits to add hand-carved details.
His company would make a few dozen wedding sculptures each week — “the trend up until March 15 was, you’re not allowed to bring your dog to the wedding reception, so everybody wants me to sculpt their dog." Other regular gigs included carving the logos of bands performing at venues like the Met, as part of the green room spread.
Now, his venues are the Broad Street median, the Logan Square fountain, a friend’s front porch in Mount Airy, the middle of Rittenhouse Square. A woman scolded him for that last one, fearing it could cause people to cluster — so now he exercises caution, trying to find sites for this ephemeral street art that will get exposure but not draw crowds.
As sunlight reflected off of his sculpture near Boathouse Row, it caught Kevin Bennett’s eye. “It’s good to see something. We been in the house and can’t get out,” the 57-year-old Germantown truck driver said as he snapped a few photos, then turned around for a selfie.
Jim Fennell, 77, came by next, squinting at what he thought at first had to be plastic, or glass. “I’ll Instagram this,” he said through his mask.
Suhag Shukla, 49, relishing a morning walk and the rare escape from work-from-home life, slowed to a stop to marvel at the installation. “It’s such a pleasant surprise,” she said. “It looks like a jewel.”
For Slavin, taking in that praise was also a reprieve.
“This is my sanity. We miss that. Normally we go and set it up, and people are like, ‘Oooh! Ah!’ Now, everything is sitting in the freezer."
He’s hoping some corporation will sponsor his pop-up installations, so he can do more of them and call back his staff. He’s been reaching out to hospitals, too, trying to get permission to deliver sculptures in places where they might brighten the day for staff and patients.
At some point, he expects he’ll also start calling the couples whose weddings are on ice, offering to deliver the sculptures, turning them into temporary lawn ornaments.
It’s easier to focus on this than on the larger picture for his business, where the electric bill alone, to cool those massive freezers, costs $600 a month.