Ice Sculpture Extravaganza

An unforgettable ice sculpture extravaganza – by The Peoples Post

KATJA HAMILTON meets renowned artist James Cussen and taps into the miracle of the ordinary turned extraordinary. 

A hundred and 20 minutes  – that’s all it takes for Plumstead resident, James Cussen to transform a 150kg block of crystal clear ice into a masterpiece.

“I can do a carving from start to finish in two hours. If I’ve done it a few times already I could maybe finish it in an hour – so the process is quite quick, when compared to other mediums such as wood or stone” he  said.

On most days he and his partner in crime, Matthew Smyth can be found working up to 10 hours at a time in a -15 degree freezer in protective clothing – freezer suits, pants and jackets with gloves, knee guards and hearing protection.  Chisels, scribes, dentist drills, angle grinders, chainsaws and blow torches are their tools of the trade.

Up until now they have carved more than 1500 single ice blocks into everything from ice bars and champagne stations to intricate sculptures of people and animals.

“We’re always trying to push the boundaries and are looking for new applications for using ice. We don’t have plans to take over the world but we do want to keep on being innovative and to always keep trying to be unique,” said James.

A highlight for the duo was when they were commissioned to carve a larger than life-size hiker summiting the peak of Everest for Discovery Channel. The sculpture started out as eight full blocks and weighed in at 1200kg at the start. It was displayed at the top of Signal Hill for the launch of the series Everest: Beyond the Limit.

The ice sculptures have also gone a long way to raising awareness of environmental issues.  Last year together with Conn Bertish from JWT, the team worked closely together with Wavescape and Light and Dark Films to produce the Ice Board Project documentary. The documentary showed the carving of an exact ice replica of the single-fin Pipeline board used in the 1970s by Gerry Lopez and other legendary greats. The project’s aim was to assist in raising funds for the Save Our Seas Foundation and to highlight the crisis in global warming.

“The trickiest part of the creation of the ice sculpture was the fusing of the two halves of the board onsite at the function so that they would be strong enough to last for the event on such a thin and narrow join. The ice board surpassed all expectations and was on display for 12 hours before the join gave way!” said James.

All of the meltdown was captured in a time-lapse video, which was a simple metaphor for what is a happening right now to all the world’s glaciers and ice caps. The ice board was auctioned off for R20 500.

James’ biggest project to date was an ice lounge at the V&A Waterfront made from 65 tonnes of ice, a project where he collaborated with a Johannesburg company in 2006 and more recently the re-creation of the famous Ice Hotel Bar in a secret location in Cape Town for a yet to be published shoot. This re-creation used 35 tons of ice and some of the ice was shipped from Sweden.

“Most people come up and touch the ice and call others to come and inspect it because they just can’t believe it’s made of ice. The snowfill details get the greatest reaction, ” says James. 

Mastering his skill to this point has taken James seven years to perfect.

“The business in Canada and America is a massive multibillion dollar industry. You’ve got maybe 200 ice companies  that have been carving commercially overseas for 40 maybe even 50 years. It’s big in the banqueting industry in Dubai and in a lot of the Filipino countries and in Thailand. The guys know how to make a swan, an eagle and a tortoise.  I saw the concept in Dubai and I thought there might be an opportunity for customised hand-crafted ice sculptures in SA.

“Having no experience at carving ice I imported some very basic moulds.

“When requests started coming in for customised artworks we had to develop our skills. We started doing a lot of research in ice carving  so we could deliver to people’s needs . The ice carvings created a wider scope for our clients, and once that happened, we never looked back.”

Ice Art has since grown from a 2m x 2m freezer container in Woodstock to premises of 270m2 in Maitland which includes a 50m2 freezer. The hard work has paid off. Yet James never rests on his laurels. In addition to ice logos and branded ice, he continues to be innovative. More recently he added experiential ice-carving sessions to his portfolio for private functions. Here guests are treated to a live carving demonstration and also get to try the unique art of ice carving.

The sessions were launched at Distell in Stellenbosch where staff members were treated to a memorable ice-carving experience and had the opportunity of recreating an ice sculpture replica of the fish eagle featured on their brandy bottle.

With ice logos and ice brands added to the mix, it’s no wonder that Ice Art continues to break new ground in customised art carvings.

For inquiries call James on 021 511 1060 or email



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