Local carver gets iced out at Wyoming comp
Jeff DeJong’s artistic philosophy matches his medium.
"I do art for the moment," said DeJong.
Coming from him, the statement makes sense. Nothing he does is carved in stone, rather, it’s etched in ice.
DeJong has attained a degree of mastery as an ice carver. The executive chef at The Yarrow Hotel, DeJong has been carving ice for 23 years.
"I think ice carving is his first love," said Allison Nord, the director of food and beverage services at The Yarrow.
She said his talents add a little bit more glitter to The Yarrow’s slate of services. In addition to his normal duties as a chef, he’ll often carve a sculpture for special events and occasions, providing guests with something to remember.
"Ice melts, but memories last," said DeJong.
A few weeks ago, he made some memories of his own, when over Presidents’ Day weekend, he made a trip east down Interstate 80 to Green River, Wyo., for the Crystal Classic, a nationally sanctioned ice carving competition.
After attending for eight years, DeJong was no stranger to the event, but after spending a few years as a judge there, he decided to change things a bit. This year, he went to participate in the competition.
"Every good judge should do at least a couple competitions," DeJong noted, with a smile.
He proved he hasn’t lost his touch. Carving a praying mantis from two blocks of ice, on his first day, DeJong captured the first-place individual award and the People’s Choice award. Working with his fiancé the next day, he carved a miner discovering a piece of gold. For that, they won the team event and the Mayor’s Choice award.
The victory was his fourth in his eight trips to the Crystal Classic, but as he talks, DeJong never sounds cocky. Instead, he keeps an understated tone as he talks about his passion and his trade, explaining the scoring system at events like the Crystal Classic and talking about his experiences carving ice.
The Crystal Classic and ice carving competitions in general, he noted, are judged on a 100-point scale according to 10 different categories, which include first impression, composition, structure, detail, use of techniques and how much ice is utilized.
DeJong couldn’t put a finger on his particular style, but he did note a few of the things that set him apart from other carvers.
"I pay attention to detail," he said. "I do things a little differently."
While most carvers stack up their ice blocks and then carve them down, he said he typically carves the individual pieces and then fuses them together. And the sculptures don’t just happen. DeJong said that for competitions he makes drawings and templates and then spends some time experimenting with real ice.
"I’ll normally practice any piece you’re going to do in competition at least two times," he said.
Even when competitions require the carvers to improvise Iron Chef-style he said he’d approach them with an idea of what he’d like to do.
"I call it, ‘doing your homework,’" he said.
And in his competitions, when there are no requests and no set occasions, what does he carve? There are few limits.
"I always say, ‘Anything can me made,’" he noted.
A Salt Lake City native, DeJong said he had his first encounter with ice carving when he was 19, working as a chef at Snowbird Ski and Summer Resort. At the time, he said the executive chef there did some ice carving, and eventually after watching, helping and listening, DeJong started to pick up the art form.
"One day he basically handed me the chainsaw and said, ‘Here,’" he said.
But while he has become more and more adept at his ice work over the years, he noted that the medium punishes hubris.
"I’ve been at competitions where I’ve seen pieces fall down that are first place winners," he said.
Accordingly, he appreciates the memories more than the works themselves. He talked about carving a Gibson Les Paul guitar and noted the camaraderie at the carving competitions.
"It’s always fun," he said.
But the best part, he said, is when one of his pieces leaves an impression.
"It’s there for a moment," he said, "and it’s a pretty unique compliment when someone remembers it six years later."
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