Nobody would doubt it when the voice blaring from the car radio proclaims, “The heat index here in New Orleans right now is 105 degrees.”
Even the wilted, sun-faded sparrows, hanging onto the telephone wires running above George Nick Connor Drive off North Broad, seem to be sweating and looking for anything below that resembles a cold puddle of water.
So what is Chris Hunter doing with a monster block of ice sitting in the back of his red pickup truck?
The New Orleans ice sculptor is waiting for the canvas-wrapped block to temper, or warm slightly. Then, under the sometimes rough, sometimes delicate, carving and whacking and polishing of Hunter’s tools, the glacier in the truck will become a sculpture he calls “woman.”
The perspiration is pouring off Hunter’s head, down his cheeks and neck, but he cannot hold back the smile of anticipation.
“Woman is one of my beautiful customers and a dear friend of mine,” Hunter says. “She is a woman who calls herself just that … ‘woman.’ This is her birthday, and I’m going to make an ice sculpture of (what else?) a woman.”
With apologies to the late, brilliant playwright, Eugene O’Neill, who wrote the play, “The Iceman Cometh,” New Orleans’ own iceman cameth long ago.
“I’ve been an ice carver so long I can’t remember doing anything else,” the 60-year-old Hunter says as he runs his hand over his brow to keep the rivulets of sweat out of his eyes.
Whether it’s for Carnival balls or conventions, visiting celebrities, Super Bowl mega parties or just a mid-sized soiree in the Garden District, if they want an ice sculpture in New Orleans, you can bet the people running the show will call Hunter.
“Whew, man, the heat is not my friend,” Hunter says, as though it needs to be said.
Hunter has charged as much as $4,500 for one of his glittering, frozen sculptures. During one Super Bowl blowout, he pulled off the astonishing feat of carving five highly praised sculptures at once for five corporate parties in five different rooms.
Of the thousands of sculptures he’s completed over the last 40 years, he says his favorite was a 12-foot dragon he carved for Benny Goodman when the famed jazz clarinetist was a regular performer at the Hyatt Regency Hotel.
He gathered blocks of ice for the Goodman dragon and sealed them together in his own secret way. He goes into detail about the batlike wings on the dragon and all of the intricate designs that went into it, including the crystal ball it clutched in one of its claws. “Man, that was something,” he says.
He grew up in New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward, where he used to mold toy figures from mud and arrange them on the doorstep in front of his home — only to see them trampled under the feet of his brothers and sisters running outside to play.
His dad delivered ice in Philadelphia before moving the family to New Orleans, where he worked for the post office on Loyola Avenue. But beyond that tenuous connection, Chris Hunter wasn’t exactly born with an ice cube in one hand and a chisel in the other.
What he had was an artistic bent, plenty of self-confidence and nerves of, you might say, ice.
“I was filling up the orange juice and Danish pastry machines at the Marriott Hotel,” Hunter says. “My girlfriend’s mother told me they were getting ready to open the Superdome and they were hiring cooks. I rushed over there and got into the hiring line.
“The head chef met us one at a time. When I got there, he looked at my resume, and it showed that I had cooked breakfast for two months: pancakes and eggs over easy. The chef yelled at me and said, ‘How dare you show up and waste my time! You don’t have any cooking experience!’ He threw me out.
“I was just about to walk through the door when the chef took a second quick look at my resume and saw that I was an art major at Southern (University) with a specialty in sculpture. He asked me if I had ever carved ice, and I said yes, although I never had. He asked me if I was good, and I just yelled back at him, ‘Damn good!”
Thus, the genesis of Jazzy Ice Sculptures and Chris Hunter, aka Mr. Jazzy, ice sculptor extraordinaire. Along the way, Hunter learned that one does not carve ice right out of the freezer. “It would shatter,” he says. “You have to temper it. Ease it along until it’s ready.”
His most popular sculpture is a shining heart topped with doves, much in demand at wedding parties. Centerpieces for the refreshment tables at Carnival are a specialty. Other sculptures are more than decorations: through the “luge” drinks can be poured and chilled; an alligator he carved at the 2012 Creole Tomato Festival held an ice bowl which, in turn, held tomatoes.
No matter how complex the project, Hunter never makes templates. He works directly on the frozen block in front of him, envisioning his artwork and then carving, sawing and polishing.
He’s created thousands upon thousands of ice sculptures of all shapes, sizes and themes over the years.
“People tell me, ‘You don’t look 60 years old. You don’t even have any gray hair,’ “ Hunter says. “I tell them that’s because I’ve spent the last 35 years in the freezer. I’m like a trout in an ice chest. I’m the only person I know who makes a living solely off ice structures.”