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Ice Sculpture Artist

Don Chapelle Went from Cooking to Chainsaws to Become Boston's Most Notable Ice Sculptor

Most people who find themselves surrounded by 40 tons of ice have likely endured an arctic expedition gone horribly wrong. But for ice sculptor Don Chapelle, that's the amount of ice he handles on a daily basis.

Chapelle is the owner and sculptor behind Brilliant Ice Sculpture, New England's prime outlet for fine ice art. He tackles sculptures both large and small with expertise, passion and precision, which has led to his name being synonymous with the ice carving scene of Greater Boston and beyond.

Though Chapelle has been sculpting for 33 years, it took some time for the craft to make him a profit and become a professional endeavor. But that's not to say his professional life lacked any merit prior to Brilliant Ice Sculpture. Quite to the contrary actually.

Chapelle was an award-winning chef, widely regarded as one of the area's finest. From 1983-1986, Chapelle was employed as Chef De Partite at the five-star Hilton International in Switzerland and later in Austria. He came back to the States to take on the position of Executive Chef at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. This position lasted until 1994, after which he co-founded Brew Moon Restaurant and Microbrewery, also in Boston. Brew Moon closed in 2001.

"It was an ugly, ugly demise of a life set in eight years of really hard work and low pay," Chapelle said. "I just needed a break."

That led Chapelle to restaurant consulting, a profession he says is unrewarding largely due to its neverending travel. Although he said his accounts and clients were wonderful, the daily grind of traveling soon wore on him.

Although Chapelle was hired as an adjunct culinary instructor at Newbury College in Brookline, Mass. in 2003, he had been working in ice sculpture on the side for years. Several years later, after carefully considering his options, he decided to take a chance and started Brilliant Ice Sculpture.

"I thought about it for about five years," Chapelle said. "I thought that I was just going to teach culinary arts in Boston and do this on the side, but after one or two years of that, the business just blew up. I found myself not being able to teach because I was much too busy at the studio. Now it's a great little business."

Prior to Brilliant Ice Sculpture, Chapelle found other means of quenching his artistic desires as a professional. He managed this largely through his time in the kitchen."I think it's one of those things that you know if you have a skill," Chapelle said. "I knew at a very young age that I had sculpting ability. I just slowly developed it over the years. It's one of those things where you do it for 40 years, and then maybe you'll be good enough to get paid to do it."

"The crossover [between professions] is amazing. I was a chef at a very high level, so I know what the very best is. Having those tactical eye placement skills I think really helps me with my business today."

As a recovering chef, you can find Chapelle incorporating his love of food into his sculptures. His luges, centerpieces, and other various sculptures often utilize the infusion of fresh herbs, fruits, and vegetables into their design. He has named these sculptures "gourmet illusions," or "gourmet luges."

"You can't walk by these things without wanting a martini," Chapelle says. "They just look so good."

The refractions in the ice give the medley of shapes, colors, and textures of the freeze-ins a beauty that would otherwise be impossible to create. The color, shape, size -- it all pops a little more brilliantly. Beyond his gourmet illusions, Chapelle gets a charge out of creating sculptures of human likeness, particularly of the face and hands. Patience and precision prove necessary in dealing with anatomy.

"It's a challenge to do efficiently," Chapelle said. "You can't afford to make mistakes. When you make a mistake with ice, you can't fix it. You have to get it right the first time."

Chapelle stresses the practice of sculpting methodically, carefully, and progressively. He admits this notion is not groundbreaking, but believes there are benefits to following the basic tenants of sculpting. These tenants have been in existence since the sculptors of ancient Greece and Rome.

All sculptures -- whether a $75 luge for a backyard barbeque or a $20,000 structure for a corporate event -- are dealt with in this precise manner. Everyone's money is green, after all, Chapelle said. The average sculpture costs anywhere from $275-375, most of which are done by Chapelle himself. He does, however, have independent contractors who come in when the shop is too much to take solo.

Brilliant Ice Sculpture also has a staff for making ice and deliveries. The staff at Brilliant Ice Sculpture upholds various ideals in their work, one of which is the importance of going green. Green practices are a key component of their production. For one, only natural ingredients are used in creating their sculptures. Likewise, there is a strict use of organic cleaning products in all the business' facilities. Additionally, once a sculpture is finished, unused and excess ice is recycled, cutting energy costs by 35 percent.

Green ideals are even incorporated in the delivery of sculptures. Low-emission vehicles are used whenever possible. It's only when a sculpture cannot physically fit that larger vans are necessary. Waste in sculpting is also nearly nonexistent.

"We don't really produce any garbage," Chapelle said. "I think the only waste we have is plastic liners that we use for packing. We empty a forty pound garbage bag every two weeks, and that's it."

Each year, the biggest event for Chapelle and Brilliant Ice Sculpture is, without a doubt, First Night Boston. First Night 2012 marked 23 years of Chapelle's involvement. His biggest and best sculptures are often saved for Boston's New Year's celebration, and with good reason. The city-wide festival acts as a showcase for over 1,000 artists in 200 performances and exhibits. Chapelle's exhibits have long been an invaluable addition to the festivities.

In years past, Chapelle has transported Boston to the incandescent world of sea life in 2006's "Here Fishy Fishy," and brought blistering, Serengeti sunsets to the city in 2004 with "Out of Africa." Last year's "Orca" captured the serene beauty of the orca whale -- a creature generally thought to be beastly and violent.

Chapelle's First Night 2012 piece was "The Looking Glass and the Four Seasons." Its purpose is to encapsulate the four seasons of New England into one cohesive piece. This is largely accomplished through freeze-ins of autumn leaves, spring flowers, and similar summer themes.

The spark of inspiration came to Chapelle while chatting on a beach with a friend. They sat there humorously pondering why the summer's warmth and tranquility fail the memory through the winter months.

"Four Seasons" is Chapelle's way of finding an answer.

"It's very, very cool," Chapelle said. "It's an exhibit of what's possible with ice. I did a lot of freeze-ins for spring and a lot of freeze-ins for fall. And then for summer we have a theme, but it's going to be hidden behind this wall of ice with little holes in it. You have to peer through the holes to see the summer."

This struggle to find summer is not unlike our efforts to recollect summertime when stuck in winter's freezing temperatures. You may very well have to look through a wall of ice -- maybe even brush off some snow -- for fond memories of poolside sunbathing to crop up.

As happy and accomplished as Chapelle is in his line of work, when it comes to advising those who want to join him in the field, he is a bit wary. He often tells them to do something else, if only out of courtesy to them.

If someone wants to put in 10, 20, 30, 40 years in, yes, they can become an ice sculptor," Chapelle said. "But we're such a rare breed. It's a tough business. You're working in a freezer, it's wet, it's heavy, stuff breaks. There's just so much involved. It's not a glamorous business, it just isn't."


To learn more about Don Chapelle, check out his Brilliant Ice Sculptures website. You can also visit his Facebook page.

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