Carving a New Dimension

by Cyndy McKone

With ice as his medium, Jeff Stahl has earned a worldwide reputation for his unique creations.

What visual comes to mind when you hear the words ice sculpture? A beautifully carved “16”, “25” or “50” to celebrate a birthday or anniversary? A logo at a fundraiser? 

How about a bar made entirely of ice—which lasted for nine hours on the cobblestones at the Kentucky Derby? Or an intricate frozen statue, 28 feet high? A Eureka, Illinois restaurateur has created all of these and more… many times over. And now, he’s slowly introducing his art to central Illinois. 

From Hobby to Career
When you first meet him, Jeff Stahl might seem quiet and reserved. But ask him about ice carving, his restaurant or his new meat smoker, and the sparkle in his eye reveals an ardent passion for whatever endeavor he undertakes.

Growing up as a kid who loved to cook, it was no surprise when the Eureka native enrolled at Joliet Junior College to pursue a culinary arts degree. During his first year, Jeff was introduced to a dimension of the field that was rapidly gaining popularity: ice sculpting, or ice carving. As with cooking, he showed a natural talent for it. 

With ice carving competitions growing in popularity, an instructor took some of his more talented students to competitions. “It was the right time to get into ice sculpting,” Jeff explains. “The National Ice Carving Association had just been formed, and competition circuits had become very popular. We were eager for any opportunity to learn.” He was soon convinced that he wanted to pursue ice carving as a hobby. 

Upon graduation, Jeff worked as a chef in southwestern Michigan before becoming executive chef at a living history farm and museum in Archbold, Ohio. There he oversaw more than 50 cooks and dishwashers who worked in the operation, which included a 400-seat restaurant, 900-seat banquet facility, café and full-service bakery. Around 1994, he began taking his hobby more seriously—and started competing in national events. Significantly, that was also the year ice carving became an Olympic sport. He entered the Plymouth [Michigan] Ice Festival and qualified for the national championship in Scranton, Pennsylvania, in both 1995 and 1996—but soon realized that the best of his competitors were full-time ice carvers. 

In 1998, Jeff decided to pursue his passion full time by purchasing Artic Diamond Ice Sculptures in Cincinnati, Ohio. This provided him the best of both worlds: a professionally rewarding career that was also creatively fulfilling. The business was ideally positioned to serve three states with three major markets—Louisville, Kentucky; Indianapolis, Indiana; and its hometown of Cincinnati. In addition to catering companies and special event planners, there were multiple opportunities for corporate clients, including Procter and Gamble, Brown-Forman and Kroger. Each city also featured venues for professional sports, hosting world-renowned events like the Kentucky Derby and the Indy 500.

Artic Diamond’s facility consisted of 4,000 square feet with two loading docks and a staff of six full-time and several part-time employees. Because of its relatively modest size, Jeff developed a relationship with Home City Ice, also headquartered in Cincinnati, where he could store 500 to 600 pieces of sculpture as needed. The sculptures for large events would be carved in parts and distributed in crates—individual pieces were hauled in refrigerated trucks, while the team would arrive and freeze the parts together on site. 

Frozen Memories
As Jeff’s business grew, he and his team’s creations garnered the attention of prominent business leaders, including a former Cincinnati Reds owner with ties to companies like Chiquita and United Dairy Farmers. His sterling reputation, along with contacts he made along the way, led to exciting opportunities he hadn’t before imagined.

One year, the company was hired to create four ice bars at the Kentucky Derby, incorporating logos into their design to serve as branding for products like Woodford Reserve bourbon and Finlandia vodka. Their creations promoted Jägermeister, Grey Goose vodka and Tommy Bahama rum at IndyCar racing events and set the stage for an NFL tailgate party at Super Bowl XLII in 2008. Jeff and his team produced ice sculptures, ice bars, drink luges, fountains, wine racks, and an array of food and beverage displays for a wide range of clients—from GE Aviation to Time Warner Cable—who tapped them for fundraisers, trade shows and new product introductions.

Meanwhile, Jeff’s ventures into the competitive world also flourished. He holds the 2004, 2006 and 2007 U.S. National Ice Carving Association titles, and he even made the USA Ice Carving Team, competing in the Winter Olympics in Provo, Utah, in 2002 and Vancouver in 2010. He also took part in the World Ice Art Championship in Fairbanks, Alaska, which he deemed the most challenging of all. 

In this competition, Jeff participated in the “Multi-Block” category, in which teams of up to four persons have six days to create a masterpiece out of 10 six- to eight-foot blocks of ice, each weighing about 4,400 pounds. Jeff’s team employed a unique stacking method, carving their sections on the ground while using a crane to position the finished pieces, which eliminated the need for scaffolding and allowed them more time to perfect each piece. In 2010, they took home the world championship with an 18-foot sculpture entitled “Jonah.” 

The inspiration for Jeff’s designs comes from many different sources. A series of six biblically-inspired sculptures included “Jonah,” which portrayed a man swimming away from a large fish, and “Elijah,” his towering 2004 world championship entry, depicting the Old Testament prophet being carried toward the sky on a flaming, horse-drawn chariot. Some of his pieces are whimsical, while others are true to life: the Eiffel Tower, a vase, an eagle. Dramatic silhouettes tend to translate well, he explains, because ice lacks shadow depth. “Ice art is intrinsic,” he states, comparing it to fireworks. “It’s not how long it lasts, it’s the memories it creates.” 

But Jeff’s subject of choice, in just about any medium, is horses—majestic animals that are easy to stylize. Carousel ponies are his “specialty” in wood, which he also enjoys carving because its opaque surface offers the shadow depth lacking in ice, enhancing the three-dimensional aspects. To add depth to ice, a transparent medium, Jeff employs a variety of techniques—differentiating textures from highly polished to more chiseled to create contrast, for example, and accentuating features or exaggerating proportions: an oversized nose, deep pockets in eyes.

Jeff Stahl’s artistry is not limited to ice. He also carves in wood and even snow—another transient yet beautiful medium.
Above right: a golf outing commission.

Back in the Saddle
Nearly a decade ago, Jeff was approached by an employee who wanted to buy Artic Diamond. “The timing was right,” he notes. Ready for a change, he and his family moved back to central Illinois. While managing the meat department at The Fresh Market in Normal, he heard that a popular restaurant in nearby Eureka was up for sale. He and his wife Michelle, also a trained chef, bought The Chanticleer in 2011 and have watched it grow as they added innovative new selections, while maintaining the favorites of longtime patrons.

In spite of the nearly 24/7 stresses of running a restaurant, Jeff’s passion for ice carving could not be denied. In 2017, he added a studio behind the establishment, modifying parts of a full-sized lumber mill for ice carving and outfitting the space with the tools needed for custom ice creations. He is currently training Jake King, The Chanticleer’s sauté chef, in the art. While the studio, Arctic Dimensions, is well-equipped for small jobs, he can take on larger jobs as well using outside resources. He’s recently completed ice carvings for weddings, parties and family celebrations. 

It’s not easy for an aspiring young ice carver today, as many culinary schools no longer offer ice sculpting classes outside of larger metropolitan areas. “I was very fortunate to be in culinary school in the 1980s when ice carving was coming into its own,” Jeff says, reflecting on his own career. “Ice carving as an art form was in its infancy… and we got to be part of the development. 

“The medium is dramatic,” he continues, still clearly enamored with the “hobby” he took up decades ago. “Even when we were starting out and not very good, our work was admired. It’s a fast medium… you can learn many subject materials very quickly.” 

He speaks modestly for a man whose creative designs have produced national titles and Olympic runs. But like any ice sculpture, the work really speaks for itself. a&s

Learn more about Jeff’s work on Facebook @ArcticDimensionsIce or call (309) 620-4252.