In the ’90s, Mark Daukas was just about unbeatable at ice-sculpting competitions. Now the champion, who turns 59 this month, is teaching up-and coming artists how to carve a niche of their own.
Daukas was odd man out when he first started competing in ice sculpting. Pennies in his pocket, and brandishing a blowtorch, the newcomer went on to break records and introduce game-changing techniques to set the ice art world afire. Behold the 8-foot saber-toothed tiger making its way down a precarious cliff. Marvel at a towering King Neptune riding the frozen waves with a pod of dolphins. Daukas is in the National Ice Carving Association’s hall of fame and has won multiple national and international championships.
How’d you get into this line of work?
I was always doing some sort of art as early as grade school. I started carving soap when I was 13 or 14, sort of an experimental thing. I found I had a knack for it. I appreciated it, enjoyed it. But then the family said, “Hey, get a job.” (Laughs) Fortunately, I had another passion, and that was eating. Turned out I had a talent for cooking as well. I thought “Why not get a job as a cook?” My first job was at the Marriott at Fashion Island. One of the chefs showed me how to do ice sculptures. I picked it up pretty fast and took it from there.
Any formal training?
Back in the ’70s there was no real training for ice sculpting. I asked one of the chefs how I could get better, and he said you have to buy this $1,500 chisel set. Understand, back then I was barely making rent. I said “$1,500—are you freaking kidding me?” Was he freaking kidding you? No, so I had to find a way around the expense. In school I’d done well in woodshop; working with power tools, routers, things like that. A router can cut through wood like butter. Fifteen hundred dollars for a chisel, but back then you could buy a router for 20 bucks or less. I applied it to ice and it was like, “Oh my God, this cuts even better than on wood.” No one had done that before.
Did more power equal more risk?
I learned the hard way that when you’re cutting with a chainsaw and the bar is bearing down into the ice, you don’t reach over to grab the piece that’s falling off. That time one of the blade’s teeth nicked my arm. I had 19 stitches. Only happened once because after that I learned my lesson. Safety is so important.
When did you start competing?
I waited a few years to hone my skills then started competing in 1980. By then, I knew I was a decent artist and knew I could be fast, too, which was important because the competitions are often timed. Before the events, everyone would lay out their gear, those $1,500 chisels, and there I was setting up my power tools. The other guys would snicker at first, but then I beat their asses again and again. With entries such as a 15-foot replica of the Statue of Liberty and a 7-foot Empire State Building complete with King Kong. Among others. I changed the whole paradigm for ice carving. Back then, the Japanese were known for their wood and ice sculptures, using elaborate chisels for thousands of years. But I proved there was another way. I called it The Daukas Method. The more I won, the more people tried to do what I was doing. When you beat the best carvers in the nation, they start to catch on and say, “Hey, maybe there’s something to this.”
What’s next for you?
I’ve trained more than 2,000 chefs, and I still teach workshops. … My passion is not just ice sculpting but sculpting, period. There’s a whole new direction in sculpting these days using computer‑aided design technology and 3-D imaging. … It’s fabulous.
Is it a big leap to switch from a chainsaw to a tablet and stylus?
What stays constant is the creativity. Think about Michelangelo. He died late in life, and his last works were so incredible—my God, chiseling marble at almost 90 years old, that’s amazing! Just think what he could’ve done if he’d had a computer. We’re lucky to have the technology we do these days. I’ll probably sculpt until I’m 100.