Before your time and mine, the iceman delivered hand-cut ice blocks to neighborhoods. Harvested from frozen ponds, the thick blocks lasted through the year in sawdust-insulated storage sheds. That was refrigeration before the dawn of Frigidaire. Today ice is a commodity very much taken for granted, though its utility has expanded to include worldwide sculpture competitions and ice hotels.
Roger Wing, an international ice carver and sculptor from Philadelphia’s Powelton Village, is an acquaintance, someone who carved stone, as I did, in Carrara, Italy. We know some of the same sculptor characters from that renowned center of modern stone carving. Mountain peaks in Carrara gleam white in summer, with rubble strewn from centuries of quarrying the prized “bianco statuario,” a warm white marble dating back to Michelangelo’s time there. Sidewalks in the town are paved with random chunks of cheaper “grigio,” gray-veined marble.
Wing alternates between local commissions and overseas ice competitions. “Ice is at times lucrative, but only sporadically. It is one of the most exciting and publicly visible branches of my work,” Wing says. “[But] commissioned work and conservation have been my bread and butter for the last ten years or so.”
Wherever he may be, though, the act of sculpting means humbly wresting flights of imagination from solid, not always opaque, materials. Given the range of materials he works with, though, his heart still belongs to wood carving. Invoking Goldilocks, Wing says, “stone is too hard, ice is too soft, wood is just right.”
On the back-to-the-future nature of carving technology, Wing says, “although I finish my work with hand chisels and wooden mallet I do take advantage of the latest technology. I rough out large forms with chainsaw, including a state-of-the-art Japanese chainsaw designed for carvers.”
Wing uses digital photography and online images for source material. He has worked with digital scanners and CNC carvers in wood, stone and ice. “There are useful applications that complement the ancient craft,” he explains. “However, the process I normally pursue is still much the same as it was 2000 years ago or more.”
Back in Philadelphia, you know when you’ve arrived at Wing’s home neighborhood. “Two of my larger than life woodcarvings and a couple of marble busts watch the block from our front porch,” says Wing, who is a friendly bear of a guy. “‘The guy with the wood people on his porch’ is sometimes how I’m introduced,” he laughs.
“I’ve become known to the whole neighborhood since we moved here less than three years ago. I have done presentations at local schools and always greet class trips walking by our house. I always bring my A-game, even to a friendly gathering to carve pumpkins.” Wing is living out his own philosophies of art and life. “I hope to continue promoting the arts locally and teaching by example. Art should be a normal part of our every day, in our schools, in our homes and on our streets. Which is not to say that it should be humdrum. The challenge is to do the same old things in new and surprising ways.”
“The entire neighborhood has deep artistic and architectural roots,” says Wing, who himself lives in a Victorian house of artistic note. Painter Harry Sefarbi lived there for over 50 years and painted in the third story space, reminiscent of a Parisian garret, that is now Wing’s drafting and clay modeling studio. Sefarbi was a direct link to Dr. Albert Barnes, taught at the Barnes Foundation for decades, and probably knew every square inch of those invaluable painted canvases.
Wing points to Sefarbi’s paint spattered wood floor in the studio, explaining how he is slowly and respectfully adapting Sefarbi’s former studio for his own purposes. He carves wood in the basement and spreads out elsewhere in the house when possible, saying with bemused yet sincere appreciation, “I’m really lucky to have a wife who lets me leave a chainsaw in the dining room.”
Art history is littered with great artists who were miserable people and treated those closest to them miserably. Wing, acknowledging the tension between art and family, made a decision years ago that greatness was a narrow pursuit. He wanted to be a good father who could share with his family his philosophy that art could be “integrated into the larger fabric of life.” Their living room is bedecked with sculptures of various sizes and states of completion. Wing maintains that “living with the sculpture is the final test of it.”
Wing picked up a small basswood carving. Noticing that it was starting to “check” (crack), he reminded himself that it had to be sealed to dry more slowly. In the kitchen, he spotted a translucent plastic bag filled with a cluster of fresh potatoes and tumbled them onto the blue Aboriginal design table cloth. Quickly wrapping the carving in plastic, he hurried out the door to meet with a new ice sculpture client.
Lumpy potatoes accommodating the daily needs of a wood sculpture. Art and life, together at last.