A mist of ice chips flew into the air as chainsaws, grinders and other sculpting tools brought an artistic vision to life.
What had at one point been a rectangular block of solid ice was transforming. A holiday monument, with Muncie’s signature “DWNTWN” logo carved into the base, began to take shape.
Less than 20 minutes went by before a crowd of more than 40 people gathered around in anticipation of the final result as Indiana Ice Studio founder Stephen Koch prepared his masterpiece.
“The ice definitely catches people’s eyes,” Koch said. “I’m not sure what it is, but it’s always caught mine, too.”
One of many exhibitors at Muncie’s annual Light Up DWNTWN festivities on Dec. 3, Koch had no trouble attracting an audience throughout the event. He said that’s the same reaction he’s gotten for the last 15 years he’s been perfecting the profession.
“I love it, families love it, kids love it,” he said. “What’s not to love about something so beautiful?”
Koch began competing in regional ice carving competitions as a student studying culinary arts at Grand Rapids Community College. Although he has a passion for cooking, Koch said the ice was different, grabbing.
Since taking on the art, Koch – who now resides in Yorktown with his family – said he’s been ranked five times in the top six carvers at the National Ice Carving Association’s United States Nationals Competition. He has also taken part in the World Ice Art Championships in Alaska, where he consistently is ranked top 10 in his category.
Koch founded the Indiana Ice Studio in Daleville in 2001, and despite the warmer weather in the summer months, Koch said he takes his skills to other mediums during “ice-friendly off-season.”
“Throughout the year, [my studio] creates sand sculptures, fruit and vegetable carvings and wood carvings,” Koch said. “They’re really wonderful pieces to create, but there’s nothing like the ice — especially when you get to come out here like this.”
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Heather Bremming, a Muncie resident, couldn’t disagree. While bringing her two kids to the Community Tree Lighting ceremony at the same DWNTWN event, Bremming said she couldn’t stop watching Koch as he cut through the ice.
“It’s unlike any other kinds of art,” Bremming said. “I just keep watching and watching. I know this is one of those things you might only see once or twice in your life.”
And because of the “rare opportunity” Koch was offering his onlookers, Bremming was sure to introduce her kids to it, as well.
“It just fits the whole theme of the night,” Bremming said. “The ice, the music, the community – this is what Christmas in a city is supposed to be like.”
After lighting the community’s holiday tree in Canan Commons, Muncie’s newest urban park, mayor Dennis Tyler had the same thoughts about the community gathering.
“This time of year is about Christ, but it’s also about the community,” Tyler said. “Seeing the people of our city come together – volunteering and sharing talents and spending time together – that’s what I really love to see, and that’s why this event is so important each year.”
The mayor said he also couldn’t help but take notice of Koch’s ice sculptures, noting that the unique attraction was part of what makes Muncie’s events so enjoyable.
“It’s just great that we can have so many talented individuals share their abilities and their joy with the families and the kids we have here tonight,” Tyler said.
As for Koch, the DWNTWN Muncie event is one of many on his winter schedule.
“It’s a busy time of year,” Koch said. "But I like the fact that I can do what I feel I'm good at and enjoy. The holidays are a really fun time, and I’m glad I’m able to be here to celebrate this time of year with everyone else.”
As for the future, Koch said he plans on coming back for next year’s holiday celebrations, and more after.
“I’m going to keep doing this for a coupe more decades, I’m sure,” Koch said. “The ice isn’t going anywhere, and neither am I.”