SEATTLE – Marysville world champion ice carver Chan Kitburi still recalls the highest compliment he received while chipping away at the abstract shape of a Christmas-time heart during an exhibition at Seattle Center’s Winterfest.
The words came from a 6-year-old girl no bigger than the 300-pound ice block he molded with his chainsaw and grinders. “She walked up to me with her mom and said, ‘Wow! Your work should be in a museum,’” Kitburi said.
Kitburi, 59, has gained plenty of accolades in his 25 years as a competitive ice carver, but coming from the honest mind of a child, the words carry more weight, he said.
Ice sculpting is a skill that Kitburi honed in his off hours when the full-time mailman isn’t busy delivering for the U.S. Postal Service in Marysville.
Kitburi sees similarities between his job and hobby.
“Being a mailman, you have to be fast and accurate,” he said. “Same thing with ice carving. You’re working against time and the temperature.”
Originally from Bangkok, Thailand, Kitburi moved to Marysville in 2004.
He became interested in ice sculpting after his older brother, Kla, a now retired executive chef who studied art in Bangkok, said he would teach him.
“My brother was my idol,” Kitburi said. He took a crack at it, and his talent was crystal clear from the start.
His brother flew across the country to join him at Winterfest last Saturday for the first time. He even pitched in to carve a dove that would become part of the angel sculpture that Kitburi carved outside Fisher Pavilion at the Seattle Center.
Kla said he is in awe of how gifted his brother has become. “He’s way better than me now.”
Kitburi is an accomplished competitor. He earned the top trophy with a team of four – in 2011 and 2015 – in the globe’s biggest ice carving contest, the World Ice Art Championships in Fairbanks, Alaska. The 2015 winner in the timed, multi-block category titled, “The Fighter,” was a massive structure featuring a towering dragon, its wings outspread, battling a Roman centurion armed with a sword and shield.
Kitburi has competed in a few of the top 10 ice sculpture contests and festivals worldwide, including a snow festival in Japan and the Ice Magic Festival in Banff, Alberta, Canada. He is a four-time winner at the High on Ice Winter Festival in Fort St. John, B.C., Canada.
He also competed in the Cultural Olympics held in conjunction with the Olympics in Provo, Utah, which netted him a gold medal from the National Ice Carving Association and Turin, Italy.
He has also created thousands of sculptures for private events.
Kitburi figures he may be the only Thai-born champion, but he is proud to represent the U.S., a “land of opportunity” that helped him fulfill his American dream.
Ice sculpting is labor-intensive, he said, but whether he has one hour or three days to transform a slab of ice, there are endless shapes that can emerge, from winged serpents and regal lions to iconic landmarks.
“You have to think outside the block of ice,” Kitburi said. Of course, there are also hearts and kissing swans carvings that will never go out of style as long as there are wedding receptions.
While Kitburi is a part-time sculptor, many do it full time.
The business side of ice carving can be lucrative, he said. Those who make a living at it cater to corporate clients, hotels and restaurants, where the cost of an ice sculpture usually starts around $400 and can run much higher.
Tools of the trade
Kitburi said using a chainsaw is two-thirds of the sculpting work, but other specialized tools such as powered die grinders, drills and special pointed bits are needed to fine tune the ice as it starts to take shape.
He also uses irons and an aluminum hot plate to connect pieces.
“At least one ice surface has to be colder than the other to bond pieces together,” he said. “You lay the plate flat, put them together, add water and they stick together.”
Saturday, for example, his brother carved a dove that Kitburi attached to the ice angel.
Kitburi said it isn’t easy picking his favorites.
He singled out the ice sculpture of a Mer-man coming out from the lake at the Snowking Winter Festival in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada. He created it with help from Dean Murray, a participant in television’s Food Network Challenge known for meticulous pumpkin carving.
His striking fantasy sculpture, “Wild Ride,” depicted a whip-wielding heroine riding a winged-catlike creature.
One of his favorite team sculptures portrayed a 30-foot high King Kong towering over ice skyscrapers at the Alaska competition. The team earned a third-place finish and the Governor’s Choice Award from then-Gov. Sarah Palin.
He is especially fond of a swan he carved at a farmers market in Lake Stevens in 2005, admiring its crystaline sheen and simplicity before setting it afloat in the lake.
Also close to home, Kitburi made a fairy sculpture outside the entrance to Windsor Square Senior Apartments in Marysville.
Kitburi said every time he cuts ice, “I feel like that’s the last time I’m going to do it.”
He said he likes ice sculpture because it’s enjoyable and relaxing.
“When I do ice carving, my mind is just in the moment; it’s just me and the ice,” he said. It’s a craft he plans to keep on doing, but he may scale back on competing since, “while it’s fun when I’m there, it uses a lot of vacation time.”
People ask him often how he holds his own after crafting a beautiful sculpture that will ultimately melt away to nothing.
He answers philosophically, “Sometimes you have to live and enjoy the moment and not hold on to something that won’t last.”
If you go
You can catch Kitburi and his ice carving exhibition free one last time this year at Seattle Center’s Winterfest Saturday from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. He is located at Fisher Pavilion next to the indoor ice skating rink.