N.B. sculptor's passion pays off at national competition

Joel Palmer, at right and Ryan Villiers finished in second place at a national ice carving competition recently.  (Joel Palmer/Facebook - image credit)
Joel Palmer, at right and Ryan Villiers finished in second place at a national ice carving competition recently. (Joel Palmer/Facebook - image credit)

Joel Palmer drove dog sleds, crewed on a fishing boat and taught snowboarding before he finally decided to follow his bliss — with a chainsaw.

"It's about doing something that you're passionate about, right?" Palmer said. "And for me, art and creating with wood or ice is my passion."

From his workshop in Browns Flat, about 45 kilometres from Saint John, he uses the saw to make custom wood sculptures or sculpt slabs of ice pulled from a pond steps away.

And that passion has been paying off.

Joel Palmer/Facebook
Joel Palmer/Facebook

Most recently, Palmer and a partner, Ryan Villiers, who's based in Edmonton, carved a piece from water's solid form that invokes the mystery lurking below the sea.

They created Siren in the Depth for their entry into the Winterlude National ice-Carving Championships earlier this month in Ottawa, which secured second place after a public online vote.

WATCH | Joel Palmer carves sculpture from the pond to the pedestal:

"There's a lot of unknown, right? So there's the whole lure of the mermaids. Do they exist? Do they not exist?" Palmer said.

Though he wasn't trying to make an argument for either point with the design, he thought the creature made an interesting subject.

He said he was aiming for an eerie scene, with the hand of the sculpture outstretched.

"Almost like she's just kind of coming through this fog in the depths of the ocean," he said. "They're swimming around this, this shipwreck, right? And it's something that maybe a diver wouldn't be so pleased to see."

Roger Cosman/CBC
Roger Cosman/CBC

But he also hoped that people would respond to it emotionally in their own way.

"That's the beauty of art ... it sparks a different emotion in everybody," he said.

Aside from bragging rights for the silver finish, there was a small cash prize, Palmer said.

"I came home to frozen pipes and broken water pumps," he said. "So it kind of helped pay for repairs."

Joel Palmer/Facebook
Joel Palmer/Facebook

But because Palmer and Villiers were less experienced than their colleagues — Palmer primarily works with wood and Villiers had never carved ice before landing in Ottawa — the win was special.

"For Ryan and myself, it solidified that it was something that we were worthy of being there and being a part of," Palmer said.

Challenges at the competition

This was Palmer's third Winterlude competition and highest finish. He was invited by the organizers to return and enlisted Villiers as his partner on Team New Brunswick, though only Palmer is from New Brunswick.

Villiers and Palmer met as castmates on the Discovery Channel show A Cut Above, a program about chainsaw carversVilliers said compared to wood, ice is pretty easy to carve.

"But it broke very easy. And there were a few times I broke some pieces off and Joel was behind me fixing up my mistakes," he said.

He said the silver finish came as a surprise, though it maybe shouldn't have for someone who took to carving as quickly as he did.

Graham Thompson/CBC
Graham Thompson/CBC

He first became interested in carving while watching HGTV's Carver Kings.

"I immediately started picking away in my garage and yeah, I've been carving for six years now and full time for five."

For Siren in the Depth, the pair started sculpting on the coldest Feb. 4 that Ottawa had seen in 100 years. So cold that it was difficult to fuse pieces of ice together without having them shatter. This was a new experience for Palmer.

"So for us that weekend, particularly, we had to create huge sculptures that normally would be fused and welded together to create the larger picture," he said. "And we had to do it with very minimal welding to make sure that we didn't split and crack our blocks."

But the carvers' response highlights the value of a national tournament for someone like Palmer who still considers himself a rookie in the art form.

"The group of carvers that were there were more than happy to share their knowledge on what to do," he said.