Written by Emily Ballard | Photos by Anthony Harden
How one couple went shopping for a new brand new business and found it…on ice.
On the outskirts of Biltmore Village there is a row of, what appear to be, storage units. As you drive into the gravel parking area, there are a couple of cars and few people to be found. In an alleyway between two of the buildings, perched on a pedestal, there is a block of ice with a detailed waterfall design etched into it. Big blocks of shattered ice lay strewn around this centerpiece, melting into the grass. A small sign on a door indicates that this is the home of Masterpiece Ice Sculptures. Inside, loud machinery and an industrial atmosphere create a stark contrast to the clean lines and precise pieces that are produced within this space.
Shawn Robins and Amy McCuin are the owners of Masterpiece Ice Sculptures, partners in business and marriage. It’s not yet been a full year since they acquired the business, and already they have learned and experienced a lot in this challenging industry. For the ten years prior, they owned a homebuilding business in West Asheville specializing in green construction of eco-friendly private residences. They averaged one new home per year, and oversaw all aspects of construction.
As the housing and building industry changed over the past decade, they found it harder to produce the types of houses they were interested in building. It was time for a new venture.
Shopping for a Business
The couple began their search with an open mind. They fantasized about owning a bed and breakfast, but quickly realized it was not financially feasible. There were quite a few restaurants available, but the prospect was a risky one. Restaurants are notoriously difficult enterprises. They tinkered with the idea of a sandwich shop, but that didn’t seem like a good fit either.
“Just like you search for a job, we searched for a business for sale,” Amy explains. As they were scouring business listings, they stumbled upon one that they recall as “secretive and intriguing.” It didn’t explain exactly what the business was, but it mentioned logistical support for events and hotels. Logistics was something Amy and Shawn knew about and they decided to delve deeper.
“We had to contact the broker, and then go through a whole non-disclosure thing before we could even find out what it was,” Amy says. “When we found out, we thought… that’s a weird business.”
Amy and Shawn knew nothing about ice sculptures and couldn’t wrap their heads around the unusual enterprise. Masterpiece Ice Sculptures had been in operation for almost 15 years and had changed ownership. It was, and still is, the only ice sculpture company in the area. They decided to let the idea simmer and continued their search, but the unusual nature of an ice sculpting business was hard to forget. It appealed to their self-sufficient work style. “One of the things that attracted us was that we could do it ourselves with a minimum amount of help,” Shawn remembers.
After much deliberation they decided to take the plunge. They describe the purchasing process as relatively smooth, equating it to a real estate transaction. The previous owner agreed to stay on in the beginning and show them the ropes. It was February and demand for ice sculpture was low, which enabled them to ease into things. But by Easter they were completely on their own, just in time for the busiest season of the year.
An Icy Patch
Amy and Shawn weren’t strangers to hard work and long hours, but the pace of the ice sculpture business was different than home construction. “We had multiple customers [at once], whereas for ten years, we had one customer at a time, per year,” Amy says, remembering the early days. “That was a big change…Then there were the questions of how to build it; how to get it there; and how to present it.”
The orders were piling up, quickly overwhelming the new owners. Shawn says that he was working 80 hours a week. Amy describes this time period as a “trial by fire…and ice.” They were discouraged and felt in over their heads. Luckily, help soon arrived. The carver who worked for the previous Masterpiece Ice owner signed on to lend a hand. He had left the industry but was willing to return as a consultant. His experience and knowledge helped Shawn and Amy get through the initial chaos of their busiest time of year, as they learned how to run their new company.
“You either lose the business or you do anything you possibly can to make it work,” Amy says. And make it work they did. After a few months, Masterpiece Ice had stabilized. Business was heating up after long hours spent in the freezer learning a new trade top to bottom. They sought out industry newsletters and tapped social media resources in search of an experienced carver to join their team. By June they had hired Collin Atkins, a seasoned carver relocating to Western North Carolina from Florida.
Collin entered the business almost by accident. His friend owned an ice cream truck, where his earliest experiments with ice and carving began. From there he went on to become the official carver for the Tampa Bay Hockey Team. His experience was a perfect fit and a welcome addition to the small Masterpiece family.
The types of ice sculptures that Masterpiece produces vary and go beyond the ever popular swan or dolphin. Although they can create those designs too, their clients are sometimes individuals commissioning a piece for a special event or wedding. Most are country clubs and establishments like the Omni Grove Park Inn and Harrah’s Casino. They create intricate and custom designs with company logos, as well as basic pieces that can be used as serving trays for hors d’ouevres. Their recent work includes a 3-D helicopter, a six-foot witch, and real grape vines that were frozen inside an ice block with a wine luge carved throughout.
“We didn’t realize at the time how much it was like carpentry, but it’s very similar. It’s just putting things together,” Shawn explains. “Only it’s ice instead of wood.”
In both home construction and ice sculpting, the designs have to be thoughtful and the measurements precise. A 600-pound sculpture must be properly secured so that it won’t topple over and injure a guest, in the same way that a roof can’t collapse and injure homeowners. “Ice is going to melt. However, you are still building it to last…through the event and look pretty the entire time,” Amy says.
Both industries are impacted by the weather. Rain delays derail the builder’s timeline and a hot day can spell disaster when transporting an ice sculpture through heavy traffic in 100-degree heat.
As Shawn and Amy reflect on the inherent anxiety of their business, they realize this is also where the two industries differ. The stress of building a house was prolonged, but they worked at their own pace and overcame setbacks and delays. The ice is less forgiving. Time is of the essence. “You are stressed intensely for 15 minutes, as opposed to a little bit of…stress for nine months while building a house,” Amy explains.
Shawn agrees, “Sometimes it’s just 30 seconds of stress and then you’re done.” This frenzy of creation is their most critical moment, and once a sculpture is successfully completed, they can stand back, admire their work, and then move on to the next project.
So just how do you make an ice sculpture? The basic elements are ice, sand, and water. Of course, expensive machinery and a willingness to be cold for prolonged periods of time are job requirements, too. The ice needed to produce these elaborate sculptures is not ordinary freezer ice. In their workshop, there are six machines that are able to make two blocks of ice each. This is called harvesting ice. Pumps circulate the water, and this process ensures that the ice is clear and free of blemishes, cracks, or imperfections. The blocks are 40 inches tall, 30 inches wide, and 10 inches thick. Each one weighs 300 pounds.
Once the client describes their vision of the final product, Collin develops a computer-generated sketch. The drawing is sent to the Computerized Numerical Control (CNC) machine. One of the harvested blocks is moved to the machine and a drill bit cuts out the design or the 3-D shape. The rest is finished by hand using an array of tools like chainsaws, chisels, and even a hot iron. Depending on the design, the carving is filled with snow or colored sand.
All of the work is completed in a 20-degree freezer. Work attire consists of heavy jackets, hats, and gloves. “The hardest part is that there are no windows,” Shawn says. “You are just in this box with these machines. That’s worse than the cold.”
Shawn is used to working outdoors, and it has still been a huge adjustment spending six to eight hours at a time in a frigid enclosed space. Adding Collin to the team helped balance the production schedule, and now they have a proven process that works.
The last piece of the puzzle is delivery. First, they remove the sculpture from the zero-degree storage freezer at their facility and wrap the pieces in furniture blankets and insulated bags. Then they gently carry their masterpiece to the delivery vehicle. Surprisingly, Amy and Shawn use a standard-sized van to transport their sculptures. Perhaps what’s most surprising is how they keep the vehicle cool enough to protect their product. Believe it or not, their only temperature control device is the van’s onboard air conditioner, set to full blast. Once they have arrived at the client’s event, the sculpture is offloaded. If a piece is particularly large and unwieldy, Amy and Shawn may use a small lift to carry their work to its display area where the insulated wrapping is removed. For larger pieces, water may be used to fuse the sculpture together.
Initially, the ice is frosted, but as it starts to warm up it becomes clear as glass. For this reason they schedule all set ups an hour in advance of an event’s start time. The sculpture is set on a tray with a drainage hose that discreetly empties the melted ice into a bucket beneath a sturdy table. Once setup is done, their work is complete. “The fun part is setting up, presenting it to people, and them saying ‘That is so cool!’” says Amy.
Breaking the Ice
With any new business, there is a period of adjustment filled with trial and error and sometimes frustration. Shawn and Amy took a chance on an unconventional business with a steep learning curve. It hasn’t always been easy. They have experienced their fair share of cold and lonely days, but have hit their stride in a specialty craft industry.
The couple has a history of conducting business on their own terms, learning as they go, and growing into new possibilities. Their plan for the future is to network and expand their business by breaking into Western North Carolina’s burgeoning destination wedding industry. As with any partnership, whether it’s a business or a marriage, Shawn and Amy understand the importance of cooperation. “We have always been really good at sharing duties…we collaborate on just about everything,” Amy says.
Working with such an extreme medium has its challenges. There have been moments when the freezer has broken with a large order due, and countless hours have been spent with runny noses and cold hands. But determination and a healthy perspective carries this ambitious couple through the tough times. They find similarities between their work and the sand sculptures of Tibetan Monks. They admit ice may not be as intricate, but the craft of sculpture is about putting energy and focus into the perfection of a single project, and once it’s complete, letting it go and moving on to the next. While Masterpiece Ice sculptures are fleeting, self-destructing from the moment they are realized, their impressions are lasting ones. Onlookers undoubtedly appreciate the irony of something so beautiful being so temporary, but Shawn, Amy, and Masterpiece Ice are here to stay.
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